News of pandemics, mass-casualty incidents and school shootings are difficult for mentally healthy adults to bear.
So imagine what children are going through in terms of their mental health. Lack of access to mental health care services increases children’s stress and worry, posing the potential for severe mental or behavioral disorders later in life.
Thankfully, with support from a $40,000 grant from the Carl B. and Florence E. King Foundation, our region’s children — particularly those in rural communities — will have improved access to long-term mental health through the use of telemedicine.
The grant will support telemedicine-based mental health services provided by Texas Tech Physicians of El Paso, the clinical arm of Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center El Paso.
“Children have experienced unique, adverse circumstances in the past several years, and many children are struggling to understand, readjust and cope with the worry of these threats,” said Nancy P. Ramirez, Psy.D., a Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center El Paso Department of Psychiatry instructor. Dr. Ramirez is responsible for implementing the telemedicine program.
Rural communities tend to have less availability of mental health services, and when services are available, other barriers such as lack of transportation or financial resources prevent patients from accessing them.
“This creates a cycle in which children who need more support are less likely to receive it, causing more problems and mental health issues throughout their lifespan,” Dr. Ramirez said.
A shortage of psychiatrists in West Texas
Among U.S. young adults age 18-25, one in three experienced a mental illness in 2020, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. El Paso County has only five psychiatrists for every 100,000 residents, compared to the Texas average of eight and the national average of nine, according to Texas Health and Human Services, and many West Texas communities lack even just one child and adolescent psychiatrist.
Dr. Ramirez said when children are mentally healthy early on, they reach developmental and emotional milestones and learn healthy social skills and how to cope when there are problems. Mentally healthy children can function well at home, at school and in the community. Without early diagnosis and treatment, children with mental disorders can have problems at home, in school and in their communities. These problems often continue into adulthood.
A consortium of care for West Texas
TTP El Paso’s Department of Psychiatry provides telehealth consultations for school-age children throughout West Texas through the Texas Child Mental Health Care Consortium (TCMHCC), a state-supported program involving 13 Texas medical schools.
TTUHSC El Paso serves as the West Texas hub for two programs associated with TCMHCC: Texas Child Health Access Through Telemedicine (TCHATT) and the Child Psychiatry Access Network (CPAN). Both are helping families across West Texas access mental health care for their children. TCHATT reaches 36 school districts in a vast geographic region that’s home to approximately 200,000 children, while CPAN is responsible for a 16-county network along the Texas-Mexico border from El Paso to Eagle Pass.
Patients are referred from the rural school program, rural primary care providers, parents or family. While the program provides much-needed support, it is limited to five short-term visits. However, most mental health problems require more than five visits to treat adequately, said Peter Thompson, M.D., M.S., chair of the Department of Psychiatry at TTUHSC El Paso.
“The King Foundation’s support fills an important gap in services the Department of Psychiatry provides to children of rural West Texas,” Dr. Thompson said. “The grant furthers our ability to provide telehealth care for an extended period of time to our vulnerable children who would not otherwise have access to mental health care.”
The King Foundation grant will also allow providers to offer mental health care for children not served by TCHATT, including those in the King Foundation service area counties of Brewster, Crockett, Jeff Davis, Loving, Pecos, Presidio, Reeves, Terrell, Ward and Winkler.
While telemedicine mental health services are increasing in availability, they are still relatively scarce, particularly those that serve youngsters. In addition, many established programs require families to have health insurance covering mental health services and diagnostic justification for providing services.
“Telemedicine is important as it can address some barriers to care and provide children with the support they need, early on, to build coping and communication skills,” Dr. Ramirez said. “They also provide parents with a better understanding of what their child is experiencing, what they may need and approaches to support their child’s sense of safety and growth.”