Mental health awareness in our rural communities

Many of us can attest to our own personal struggles with mental illness, or that of family members and friends. Today, one in five U.S. adults live with mental illness, and young adults (ages 18 to 25) experience the highest prevalence (25.8%) of any mental illness. Mental illnesses and substance use disorders are the leading causes of disability worldwide, with a strong connection to suicide. The National Center for Health Statistics indicates the age-adjusted suicide rate increased by 33% from 1999 to 2017.

More than 80% of Texas’ 254 counties are designated as Mental Health Professional Shortage Areas, with a majority being rural counties. Despite lacking the density of urban counterparts, rural communities often experience similar rates of mental illness. However, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that, from 2001-15, Americans in rural counties had higher rates of suicide than those in urban counties.

This is profound because rural communities must overcome unique barriers in accessing needed care. These include the need to travel long distances, mental health workforce shortages, discrepancies in information technology infrastructure and a lack of anonymity when seeking care.

Recognizing the need for investment in mental health, Texas legislators proposed significant mental health bills in their most recent session. Among them were Senate Bill 11, which creates the Texas Child Mental Health Care Consortium to leverage the expertise of health-related institutions of higher education, such as the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center (TTUHSC). This session built upon tremendous investments made by the 85th Legislature, which invested $7.6 billion in behavioral health funding in the 2018 -19 biennium. The state must be commended for moving from awareness to taking concrete steps to fund mental health. This is an exciting time filled with hope.

In line with the states’ investment, Texas Tech University and TTUHSC have identified the need to better address mental health challenges, and in 2018 established the Texas Tech Mental Health Institute (TTMHI). Though in its early stages of development, TTMHI’s vision is to become a leading mental health institute that reduces the impact on our communities of mental illness, substance use disorder and related co-occurring conditions. To achieve this vision, TTMHI will leverage and coordinate the unique strengths of the Texas Tech University System’s component institutions.

Significant efforts exist within the Texas Tech University System to address mental illness and co-occurring conditions. The Family Therapy Clinic and the Psychology Clinic at Texas Tech provide training opportunities for future mental health clinicians and researchers and much-needed services for our community. Clinical departments at TTUHSC also provide much-needed access to mental health services, including integrated care and services that meet the needs of children in the juvenile justice system.

Our various colleges and schools offer a variety of degrees in the realm of education and workforce development. The Center for the Study of Addiction and Recovery directs novel research from a systemic lens by looking at the brains of family members of addicts to better understand ways to help family units in recovery. At the molecular and therapeutic level, researchers in the Department of Pharmacology and Neurosciences at TTUHSC are conducting studies and developing new therapies to combat the opioid crisis.

Since mental illnesses often manifest first in children and adolescents, with 50% of mental health disorders beginning by age 14, it is fitting Texas Tech also seeks to meet the needs of this population. The TTUHSC Center for Superheroes operates as a unique asset in our region, providing comprehensive medical, mental health and developmental services for victims of childhood trauma and their families. The Telemedicine, Wellness, Intervention, Triage and Referral (TWITR) Project serves schools with limited mental health resources, using licensed professional counselors (LPCs) and telemedicine consultation with a psychiatrist to screen and assess students and provide the necessary referral services.

Going forward, we must sustain the momentum gained in mental health awareness and be mindful of the continued need for investment in this field. Opportunities exist for both basic science and translational research into the root causes of mental disorders, but we must do more in the area of prevention. Every effort should be made to increase access to effective treatment that supports long-term recovery.