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Boosting mental health care in rural areas of the country

Boosting mental health care in rural areas of the country{ }(Getty Images)
Boosting mental health care in rural areas of the country (Getty Images)
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Rural areas of the United States experience higher rates of suicide and drug overdose death compared to urban ones, according to a new report from the Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC).

A lack of mental health care is a key reason.

More than 60% of nonmetropolitan counties lack a psychiatrist and almost half do not have a psychologist.

"Mental health is a big thing, it’s one of those illnesses that we can’t see," said Antron Williams, a first-generation farmer in rural Orangeburg County, South Carolina. "Access is always more of a challenge than more urban centers."

The Bipartisan Policy Center's report, Achieving Behavioral Health Care Integration in Rural America, pushes for integrating primary care services and treatment for mental health and substance use conditions in rural areas.

"Trying to meet folks where they are in rural areas," said Kendall Strong, an author of the new report and a senior policy analyst for BPC’s Health Program. "They're often presenting at their primary care clinician with behavioral health issues. And we need to make sure that we empower those primary care providers to help provide those behavioral health treatments."

Strong said the integration in rural areas would mean more partnerships for primary care providers.

"Either providing them more training or giving them access to additional behavioral health care providers they can talk to about their patient's needs and about the drugs that are able to be prescribed for opioid use disorder such as buprenorphine are really important things to do, and allowing them to bill," said the health care expert.

"It could be more of a one-stop shop or as we say in the country, 'kill two birds with one stone,’”said Williams.

The report provides four key areas of focus:

  • Broad, foundational policies at the federal level that will lay the groundwork for integrated behavioral health care
  • Efforts to support a workforce to deliver integrated care in rural areas
  • Changes to payment and delivery systems to help rural providers overcome integration barriers
  • A look at the unique needs for rural integration, including those of veterans, tribal communities, and individuals with high behavioral health needs to provide more coordinated services

“Our goal, through all of our work, is to enhance the health and well-being of individuals, including those in rural America,” said Julia Harris, associate director of BPC’s Health Program. “Integrating behavioral health into primary care just makes sense. We improve health outcomes, treat the whole person, and increase access to much-needed mental health and substance use treatment services for rural residents. With these recommendations, we can make significant strides in improving the lives of rural Americans.”

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BPC also recommends "the expanded use of telehealth, which took off during the COVID-19 pandemic, and new investments to ensure the delivery of integrated care in rural America."

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