LINCOLN–A recent study conducted by the University of Nebraska Medical Center paints a stark picture about the status of behavioral and mental health treatment across Nebraska, saying the state is inadequate and inefficient in treating people who suffer from mental and behavioral health problems.
Nearly 79 counties in Nebraska are recognized as being short on mental health care providers such as psychiatrists, counselors and nurses, according to the study, which was presented during a legislative committee hearing Wednesday at the capitol.
The study analyzed several areas of health care throughout the state and conducted surveys of health care consumers, other stakeholders and the general public.
The study included demographic data on the number of people who have and get treatment for mental and behavioral health problems.
The Nebraska Task Force on Behavioral and Mental Health held an open hearing to take testimony from several health care professionals, including Shinobu Watanabe-Galloway, who was part of the group leading the study, as well as Deputy Platte County Atorney Elizabeth Ley.
Watanabe-Galloway, associate professor at the College of Public Health at UNMC, presented the study to the task force.
Legislative Resolution 413 passed earlier this year called for the study and created the task force, setting out to conduct a statewide needs assessment and develop a strategic plan.
Recommendations that emerged from the survey included:
– The need for more formal collaboration among different health agencies
– A desire for increased information sharing among health care providers
– The need to establish 24/7 hotlines or intermediate treatment centers for those who don’t necessarily need to go to a hospital.
– Addressing rural transportation needs.
“Transportation is lacking in rural areas,” Watanabe-Galloway said. “Therefore, it is inadequate and not appropriate for people with mental health crises.”
Additionally, the report documented a distrust of police officers by those who would potentially seek care for mental or behavioral issues.
“The involvement of law enforcement is a traumatizing experience, making many of these people hesitant to ask for care,” Watanabe-Galloway said, adding that those surveyed recommended some sort of hotline or intermediary care to help these people feel safe and get treatment without fear of something happening.
The shortage of psychiatrists is troubling, as only 12 counties in the state have a licensed psychiatrist. Even more lacking are medical personnel qualified to prescribe medication to mental health patients.
Ley also testified in front of the special task force, after having testified in a similar hearing last year. She argued there needs to be an emergency system that covers people who are violent and dangerous that private hospitals don’t want to take.
“One thing severely lacking is the ability to see someone needs treatment and then get them to the right place,” Ley said.
She said people with mental health issues, especially in rural areas, are being sent to all the wrong places, including jail in some instances, which Ley said only exacerbates the problem.
“There’s a problem with funneling people [with mental health issues] to jail when the real issue is mental health,” Ley said.
Both Watanabe-Galloway and Ley recommended increased education in recognizing and evaluating people for mental and behavioral health disorders, especially when there is already a lack of licensed health professionals qualified to take care of them.
“Shortage of psychiatrists is a problem. Intermediate care and tele-medicine are small fixes, but we need other options for prescribers than psychiatrists,” Watanabe-Galloway said.