Lack of mental health professionals leads to shortage of patient care

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An earlier version of this story mistakenly identified the name of the National Alliance Against Mental Illness.

What one mental health professional called a “public health crisis” means people in need of help can often wait weeks due to the shortage of professionals in Arkansas.

Quinyatta Mumford, section chief of the Arkansas Department of Health’s office of rural health and primary care, estimates the state needs around 67 more psychiatrists to cover patients.

“Getting practitioners to practice in rural areas can sometimes be a challenge,” Mumford said.

Mumford recommended that the state increase the number of incentives to encourage people to work in rural Arkansas. These incentives could include grants or loan repayment programs.

“The shortage we are currently experiencing could be considered a major public health crisis,” said Buster Lackey, executive director of the Arkansas division of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

About a third of Americans suffer from a shortage of mental health professionals, Lackey said.

And the situation is worse in Arkansas, where Mental Health America has ranked the 42nd worst state for accessing mental health care.

“It’s too complicated. There is no direct access to ask for help,” Lackey said.

At the Guidance Center, the community mental health center that provides care to people in the River Valley, CEO Rusti Holwick said the problem was not a lack of psychiatrists but a lack of all other health professionals. mental.

Rusti Holwick, Managing Director of the Guidance Center.

Tyler Caves, a licensed therapist at the Guidance Center, said statewide there was a shortage of therapists in general, meaning people could have to wait weeks for care.

And the problem got worse during the pandemic. As a result of COVID-19, people’s mental health issues are more acute, straining people in the field and forcing some to even quit the profession, Holwick said.

“They are on the front lines, as are your doctors and nurses,” Holwick said.

Holwick also pointed to the shortage of mental health professionals licensed to bill Medicare.

Professionals authorized to bill Medicare are registered social workers or doctorates. There are not enough of these people to see all the people who need mental health care through the medicare system.

“We’re finding that more and more in Arkansas, there’s just a shortage, and it’s really hard to cover these people with Medicare,” Holwick said. “It’s really a disadvantage because these are people who have always worked their entire lives, you know, and they’re almost at a disadvantage because they have Medicare instead of some other kind of program.”

Holwick said there needs to be a change to allow more mental health professionals to bill Medicare and treat these people.

It can also be difficult to place people in mental hospitals. This is especially true for nonverbal autistic people and pregnant women, Caves said.

“We just have to keep trying every day to get them out there,” he said.

To make matters worse, mental hospitals are not accepting patients with COVID-19. So while these patients may pose a danger to themselves or to others, they have nowhere to go. In those cases, Caves said he had to rely on telemedicine to try to protect patients.

“They don’t want to risk shutting down the whole hospital,” Caves said.

But the main problem he has when trying to place people in hospitals is knowing when hospitals aren’t going to take serious Medicaid patients.

At Riverview Hope Campus, an adult homeless shelter in Fort Smith, executive director Chris Joannides decided to bypass the state’s failing mental health system.

The Joannides team is setting up a day treatment program for people on campus with mental health problems.

“Rather than fighting the system… we decided to go internally,” he said.

Joannides expects to be able to start the program in January.

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