Mental health organizations are working to shrink the gap of access to mental health care professionals in rural and poor areas of Louisiana.
Mental illness was already a problem in Louisiana before the COVID-19 pandemic, which has caused an increase in mental health issues around the country and created its own challenges in treating mental health issues, according to a study by the Kaiser Family Foundation.
The rates of depression continue to rise in Louisiana despite having 1 mental health care professional per 400 residents in the state, according to data from America’s Health Rankings’ website.
Most mental health professionals tend to practice in larger cities, leaving many rural areas with a lack of mental health care professionals, according to Dr. Monteic A. Sizer, executive director of Northeast Delta Human Services Authority. Organizations like NDHSA attempt to provide mental health care to all residents within their jurisdiction.
One method of bringing greater mental health care access to rural areas is telehealth. Telehealth allows health care professionals to hold appointments with patients via voice or video calls instead of in person visits. The COVID-19 pandemic has led to the increased adoption of this style of appointments.
“[A] positive of COVID is implementation of telehealth,” said Anthony Germade Jr., executive director of the Louisiana branch of the National Alliance of Mental Illness.
Germade said telehealth allows those who lack transportation to access primary and mental health care. Lack of transportation is a large barrier to accessing mental health care in rural and poor areas, according to Germade.
Though, telehealth does bring challenges for patients. Patients need access to high-speed internet and computer technology, which some may lack in poorer and rural communities, according to Germade. According to a 2018 Pew Research article, 24% of people living in rural America believe that access to high-speed internet to be a major issue in their communities.
Sizer said he wants municipalities to work with internet service providers to improve and expand the internet infrastructure in rural and poor areas.
Mobile health clinics are another method of providing mental health care access to those in rural areas. Mobile health clinics work by having primary and mental health care professionals drive to patient’s homes. This eliminates the need for transportation as well as access to the internet, according to Sizer.
COVID-19 has limited the mobile health clinic service to new patients due to its in person nature, according to Sizer.
Sizer said he believes telehealth and mobile health clinics are only a couple solutions for combating mental illness in Louisiana.
Stigmas related to mental illness keep some from seeking professional health, according to Sizer. NDHSA works with faith-based communities to lessen stigma in communities as well as provide them with a scientific understanding of mental illness, according to Sizer.
While mental illness is based on genetics, physical health and external factors can exacerbate the suffering of those with mental illness, according to Sizer. Finding solutions to these problems could possibly elevate that suffering, according to Sizer.
Louisiana has long dealt with issues like heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes. All these physical ailments can worsen the effects of mental illness and issues can become cyclical, according to Sizer. People who suffer from diabetes may find themselves losing their independence and unable to work, which leads to greater depression, according to Germade.
Having reliable access to medication and primary care physicians could improve the mental health of those with physical health problems, according to Sizer.
High unemployment and poverty may lead to greater levels of mental illness within the state as people find it difficult to make ends meet. Financial instability and declining mental health leads to increased divorce rates, drug use and crime rates, according to Sizer.
In 2019, Louisiana ranked 49th in the nation in terms of poverty rates, according to the Talk Poverty website. The state also ranked 47th in terms of unemployment.
Sizer would like to see the conversion schools to employment offices and mental health clinics after school hours.
“I don’t think, yet, that [political] leaders in this state have envisioned what a [mentally and physically] healthy Louisiana looks like,” said Sizer.
Sizer said he wants to see better jobs, education and access to mental and physical health care in these poorer and rural communities. All factors can contribute to a more stable community, according to Sizer.
“I believe we can have something different and better,” said Sizer.