DENVER — It took a tragedy in Texas for state officials to discuss the need for more mental health providers in the state. Dozens of counties there do not have any mental health providers.
In Colorado, there is a similar story; of the state’s 64 counties, a 2020 report by the Colorado Rural Health Center found that 22 counties don’t have a psychologist or psychiatrist working there.
“Colorado ranks near the bottom or at the bottom when it comes to adult need-for versus access-to care,” said Vincent Atchity, the president and CEO of Mental Health Colorado.
Telehealth is helping fill some of the gaps, however, Michelle Mills, the CEO of the Colorado Rural Health Center, says telehealth poses its own challenges.
“One of those is broadband. And so, we have a lack of broadband, or sometimes a lack of affordability for broadband out in our rural communities,” Mills said.
Older populations in those communities also may not feel as comfortable with telehealth and there is a loss of personal connection between the patient and professional.
The challenge of finding more behavioral health providers is not new; Ingrid Johnson, the president and CEO of the Colorado Center for Nursing Excellence says it has been a persistent problem for years but has gotten worse since COVID with more burnout among professionals and more need among patients.
“Family Nurse Practitioners are telling me that probably 30 to 50% of their caseload has a behavioral health issue,” Johnson said.
Recruiting and retaining professionals in rural communities poses its own set of unique challenges because it can be hard to find someone willing to live in these areas.
“It is not just finding the people that want to do it and are willing to go through the education and the cost and everything that plays into it. It's to have some place that they can live--that they can afford to live, and what does their salary look like once they're there,” Johnson said.
That’s why the CCNE started its Grow Your Own program to recruit nurses already living and working in the community.
The goal is to help fund their education and give them mentoring or coaching to help them obtain a certificate to practice psychiatric mental health.
“If you can find them from within those communities and sort of raise them up and upskill them and get them educated, then we're much more successful in building that workforce,” Johnson said.
Part of the deal CCNE makes with providers is requiring them to stay and work in their communities for at least two years for every year of funding they received.
So far, the program has successfully helped fund the training for 150 nurses. Of those, only six have left their communities after fulfilling their obligations.
Dana Murphy-Parker knows the struggles of rural communities in attracting professionals. She has been a nurse for more than 40 years in Grand Junction and is a psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner.
“When I heard about this program through CCNE, I just thought it was really great because that's what we need; we need more education for people to be able to enrich and to increase the number of behavioral health in our communities,” Murphy-Parker said.
Even with professionals like her, Murphy-Parker says the need is great and that there are long waiting lists for people to get treatment.
“Sometimes it's a challenge to schedule everybody or to schedule people when they really need and want to be seen,” she said.
She would like to see more counselors and caseworkers in the community as well. Murphy-Parker could have retired by now, but she says there are too many people who need help and too few people to do the work.
Johnson hopes the Grow Your Own program will help fill some of those gaps. However, she says the program needs more funding and more people will be interested in taking up this difficult line of work.
*A previous version of the article incorrectly described Dana Murphy-Parker as a graduate of the Grow Your Own program. She is on the steering committee for the CCNE grant.