Rural mental health must not be overlooked

The challenges that try rural communities in nearly all aspects of health care – greater travel distances, fewer providers, heightened health concerns, lower incomes – also stand in the way of the delivery of behavioral and mental health care services. While there is not a greater prevalence of mental illness among rural residents, a significant disparity exists in access to mental health services and care for rural populations.

In the United States, there are nearly 4,900 areas with mental health professional shortages. Of these, nearly 54 percent are classified as rural.

A mental health professional shortage area is designated as such by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in cooperation with state partners. This designation provides access to federal funds in the form of scholarships and loan repayments or enhanced reimbursements to providers and clinics for services.

Even with these incentives, it would require more than 1,600 additional mental health providers, psychiatrists, psychologists, counselors, social workers or psychiatric nurse practitioners to meet the need in rural shortage areas alone.

Efforts to build and maintain an adequate behavioral and mental health workforce are not immune from the circumstances, which confront general rural workforce development and retention initiatives.

As the topic of behavioral and mental health draws the attention of Congress and state legislatures in the aftermaths of violent acts and as a facet of the fight of the opioid epidemic, the existing disparity of behavioral and mental health care in rural America must continue to be addressed, starting with building a workforce to meet rural resident needs.