Expanded mental health services on the way for West Texas children

Far West Texas has a shortage of psychiatrists, but a state program is trying to fill in the gaps with telemedicine.

By Alexandra HartAugust 23, 2022 10:20 am,

Demand for mental health services remains high, as Texans grapple with lingering stresses from the pandemic and economic anxiety. But for people in rural parts of the state – and particularly for kids in those areas – getting adequate mental healthcare can be a challenge. That’s especially true in West Texas, where psychiatrists are even harder to come by.

Now, Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center El Paso aims to expand access for mental health services for kids in West Texas with a recent grant from the Dallas-based Carl B. and Florence E. King Foundation. Their efforts are part of a statewide program called the Texas Child Mental Health Care Consortium, a collaboration between several universities in the state to bring care to more children.

Nancy Ramirez, a clinical psychologist and assistant professor at Texas Tech Health Sciences Center El Paso, spoke with the Texas Standard about the lack of mental health in West Texas and how the program is trying to reach those who need care.

» For more information or to find a mental health provider for yourself or someone else, visit MentalHealthTX.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: How does the lack of mental health care in West Texas compare with other parts of the state – and for that matter, the country? 

Nancy Ramirez: So currently, you know, in West Texas, well, in El Paso, there’s about five psychiatrists for every 100,000 residents, whereas in most of Texas, it’s eight psychiatrists. The national average is actually nine psychiatrists. So we’re really facing a lot of challenges in having enough providers to see the large number of youth and individuals that need mental health care.

Why is there such a shortage of providers, especially in the western part of the state?

It’s a combination of factors. I think we just have difficulty getting psychiatrists here in this region of Texas and, you know, getting them to to stay longer term.

I would guess part of that has to do with the economics of population demographics and how many patients you can serve and making a living in a sense, right?

Yeah, absolutely.

What are your program’s plans for helping meet the needs, given the lack of doctors in the region? 

So, this is a telemedicine program. And so we’re able to provide virtual psychiatric and psychological services. And so because of that, we’re able to reach a larger geographical area, whereas individuals would have to come into clinic to get evaluations, to continue receiving, you know, follow-up psychiatric care as well as psychotherapy, right. So psychotherapy, they often need to come in at least once to two times a month. So rather than parents and children having to come in person to a clinic that’s really out of their geographical range, you know, they’re able to log on and access this care from their homes. And so really, this is their access to it.

I would think a lot of parents would have some basic questions, though, about the efficacy of telehealth services when it comes to mental health needs.

Yeah, absolutely. You know, telemedicine isn’t new. And so these questions have been raised for a long time. Patients are still able to receive thorough evaluations, however. And what we realized during the pandemic is that, you know, it really is efficacious in comparison to not receiving services. The pandemic really forced us to switch over to this medium of care  that’s been around, but were really being questioned in terms of efficacy. And we saw that, you know, patients are actually are able to receive the services and receive good care and be more adherent to their care because it’s more accessible to them.

Are we talking about long-term care, or is this short-term triage, or what exactly? 

With our program, individuals receive up to 12 sessions. And so it’s not quite in the long-term range, but it gives us enough time for them to receive evaluations, monitoring in terms of psychiatric care, and then they also receive psychotherapy. So, you know, they receive sufficient treatment typically, and depending on what they need, it may, you know, include parents, which is also something that becomes more accessible with remote treatment.

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