What one mental health professional called a “public health crisis” means people needing help can often wait weeks because of the shortage of professionals in Arkansas.
Quinyatta Mumford, section chief of the office of rural health and primary care for the Arkansas Department of Health, estimates the state needs about 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 parts of Arkansas. Those incentives could include grants or loan-repayment programs.
“The shortage that we have right now could be considered a major public health crisis,” said Buster Lackey, the executive director of the Arkansas division of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill.
About a third of Americans experience a lack of mental health professionals, Lackey said.
And the situation is worse in Arkansas, which Mental Health America ranked the 42nd worst state to access mental health care.
“It’s too complicated. There’s no direct access to get in for help,” Lackey said.
At The Guidance Center, the community mental health center that provides care for people in the River Valley, Chief Executive Officer Rusti Holwick said the problem is not a lack of psychiatrists but a lack of all other mental health professionals.
Tyler Caves, a licensed therapist at The Guidance Center, said throughout the state there is a shortage of therapists in general, meaning people might have to wait weeks to receive care.
And the problem has become more pronounced during the pandemic. Because of COVID-19, people’s mental health issues are more heightened, putting a strain on those in the field and causing some to even leave the profession, Holwick said.
“They’re on the frontline just like your doctors and nurses,” Holwick said.
Holwick also pointed to the dearth of mental health professionals who are licensed to bill Medicare.
Those professionals who are allowed to bill Medicare are licensed certified social workers or people with doctorate degrees. 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 challenging to cover those people with Medicare,” Holwick said..”It’s really a disadvantage because they’re people who’ve always worked all their lives you know and they’re being 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 women who are pregnant, Caves said.
“We’ve just got to keep trying every day to get them there,” he said.
To make it worse, mental hospitals do not accept patients who have COVID-19. So even though these patients might be a danger to themselves or others, they have nowhere to go. In these cases, Caves said he has had to rely on telemedicine to try to keep patients safe.
“They don’t want a risk of shutting the entire hospital down,” Caves said.
But the main issue he comes across in trying to get people placed in hospitals is when hospitals will not take severe Medicaid patients.
At the Riverview Hope Campus, an adult homeless shelter in Fort Smith, Executive Director Chris Joannides has decided to circumvent the state’s broken mental health system.
Joannides’ team is putting together a day-treatment program for people on the campus who have mental health problems.
“Rather than fight the system… we decided to go internal on it,” he said.
Joannides expects to be able to start the program in January.