El Paso has gone through more tragedy and adversity in the last two years as any community should ever have to bear. In August, we marked a year since the deadly shootings at Walmart.
Earlier this year, the COVID-19 pandemic threw the entire country into economic uncertainty, and nowhere has that pain been felt as acutely as in our corner of the state. And today, the coronavirus is raging throughout the region, filling our hospitals and putting incredible strain on our health care systems, providers, patients, and their families alike.
As a community, El Paso is strong and, as always, will endure and rebound. However, the truth is, there are emotional consequences to such trauma and grief, and it will take time and support for our community and our people to heal. Projections show that the economic strain brought on by COVID-19 can increase the numbers of suicides and substance use disorders.
As important as it is for patients suffering from COVID-19 to receive the physical health care they need, it will be crucial to have mental health care providers who can support El Pasoans going forward. As a whole, Texas has a need for more mental health care providers. In fact, 12.5 million Texans live in mental health professional shortage areas, and 185 Texas counties do not have a single psychiatrist. Access to this specialty is even more sparse in rural communities.
To help expand this much-needed workforce in our community, the University of Texas at El Paso recently announced it will be offering a new postgraduate program in the coming year to train more psychiatric mental health nurse practitioners.
Nurse practitioners are highly-trained and experienced health care providers who study in a variety of fields and provide quality care in their areas of expertise, including geriatrics, family practice, pediatrics, and psychiatry.
With this new UTEP program, existing nurse practitioners will be able to expand their expertise to include the field of psychiatry. The number of psychiatric mental health nurse practitioners in Texas has almost tripled in recent years, from 481 in 2015 to 1,439 in 2020. With the addition of the UTEP program, these numbers will grow even more.
This will help close a substantial gap in care, as mental health support has been a long time growing area of critical need in our state, even in urban and populated areas. Due to the nature of mental health treatment, patients may need to return to their provider multiple times, perhaps even weekly. This can mean the difference between a patient getting the care they need or waiting until it reaches a crisis level. Left untreated, mental health issues can lead to unemployment, drug abuse, violence, and even suicide.
We are blessed in El Paso to have a legislative delegation who has championed improved access to mental health care and supported our providers, like nurse practitioners. Their leadership has helped expand our mental health workforce and streamlined regulatory licensing processes.
In addition, training more psychiatric mental health nurse practitioners will significantly increase the number of quality mental health care providers to help people in our region and elsewhere in the state.
That is critical for El Paso. Mental health professionals will tell you that the worst effects of post-traumatic stress might not set in for months or even years. For El Pasoans, who are showing resolve as they deal with the trauma and tragedy from the shooting on top of the stress and grief of the pandemic, access to quality mental health care will be increasingly important as we move forward and heal.
Author: Christy Blanco, DNP, APRN, WHNP-BC
Blanco is a nurse practitioner in El Paso and president of Texas Nurse Practitioners, the largest state association of nurse practitioners in the country.
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