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‘It’s truly a crisis’: Mental health disparities in rural Louisiana, statewide mental health professional shortage

Published: Aug. 9, 2021 at 6:24 PM CDT
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ALEXANDRIA, La. (KALB) - Treating patients experiencing mental health issues is challenging for healthcare providers. In fact, the difficulty increases for those servicing individuals in rural areas.

“It’s been studied that rural residents don’t receive their primary care and preventive screenings as much as they should,” Katie Corkern, the Executive Director of Louisiana Rural Mental Health Alliance, said. “That makes it even more likely that they won’t receive their mental health care.”

Corken submitted data showing one in 25 people in Louisiana experience serious mental illness. She said a major hurdle and disparities for those in rural communities is access to mental services.

“For every 340 citizens, there’s only one licensed mental health professional. That number grows larger in Central Louisiana,” she said.

Louisiana needs more than 200 mental health workers to meet the current professional worker...
Louisiana needs more than 200 mental health workers to meet the current professional worker shortage.(Source: HRSA)

The Health Resources and Services Administration published information in July 2021, demonstrating the great need for mental health professionals. For example, Rapides Parish is included in the dark blue category, indicating a major shortage in the area.

“It’s definitely hard to get access to care. It’s truly a crisis.”

Katie Corkern, Executive Director of Louisiana Rural Mental Health Alliance

The effects of the mental health professional shortages also influence hiring decisions for local mental health organizations. Michael Moto, CEO and owner of Healing Hands and Hearts Behavioral Health Center, said it is challenging getting trained people into the field. He also said male mental health professionals are in dire need. His center currently employs one male case manager.

“Most of the issues we see are children without the parent in the home, particularly the father,” Moto said.

He said the shortage puts a strain on mental health organizations. He also believes male mental health workers play a vital role in community health.

“By not having male case managers, we’re not able to help those clients that need male role models and guidance in their lives,” he said.

Those role models at an early age can improve health and overall life outcomes because many in the state’s juvenile justice system experience mental illness.

“Students drop out of school because they’re getting in trouble because their mental needs and mental health needs aren’t being met,” Corken said. “There’s drug addiction, incarceration, violence, job stability and, sadly, suicide. The rate is every 12 hours, one person in Louisiana dies by suicide.”

Corken said the most important thing is breaking down stigmas and barriers like transportation and bringing services to patients.

“It’s so difficult in a rural area because sometimes the closest practitioner can be easily over an hour from someone’s house, so that makes it incredibly difficult to receive continuing treatment, let alone just one treatment,” she said.

She also claims the expansion of telehealth services leaves many rural families without healthcare because of the state’s broadband infrastructure. A coalition of non-profits and other groups identified 17 parishes in Louisiana as broadband deserts—a parish with 50% or less broadband coverage.

“That’s definitely just another barrier,” she said. “If you can’t receive these specialized behavioral health services inpatient, reach out to us. We will try and connect you with a provider that’s in your area, goes into homes and treats kids and families so that they can lead productive lives.”

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