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Expanding Access to Telehealth Mental Health Services in West Texas

Young people in West Texas have access to more mental health services with support from Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Texas.

Launched in 2022, the Rural Telepsych for Youth program at Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center El Paso’s Department of Psychiatry offers telepsychiatry sessions to residents of 15 West Texas counties. It supplements two state programs that provide limited services, offering children who need additional mental health treatment up to 12 additional telepsychiatry sessions. The program has provided care for about 100 patients through an estimated 1,000 visits.

"Particularly in rural communities, the echoes of mental health struggles often go unheard."

A $25,000 BCBSTX Blue Impact℠ grant has helped the Rural Telepsych for Youth program reduce barriers to mental health care for young people in rural areas, including lack of money, transportation and providers. The grant also is supporting expanded capacity for autism spectrum disorders in children and teens, which requires a specific psychological evaluation to qualify for services.

“With greater access to care, children and adolescents can receive treatment sooner in the course of their illness and have a much better chance of recovering fully,” says Dr. Sarah Martin, medical director of the Texas Child Mental Health Care Consortium at TTUHSC El Paso.

“If psychiatric symptoms are treated early, young people are much more likely to graduate from high school and college or technical school and be able to have functional relationships, both at work and in their personal lives," Martin says. "This program serves patients in rural counties who do not have a psychiatrist.”

TTUHSC El Paso is among several BCBSTX grant recipients statewide more than 100 organizations across Texas working to address social determinants of health with support from Blue Impact grants

“In partnership with and through the funding provided by a Blue Impact grant, we are able to continue our focus on our key pillars, while also addressing local health and human service needs and closing the gap in behavioral health related inequities,” says Sheena Payne, BCBSTX’s community affairs director.

“The grantees that were selected demonstrated inventiveness and focus in putting together impactful programs that target mental health, disease prevention and management and nutrition, among other health and socio-economic issues," Payne says. "We are confident their efforts will generate great results while helping vulnerable Texans.”

Almost all of Texas’ counties have been designated as mental health professional shortage areas, according to the state Department of Health Services. And little more than 30% of mental health care needs are being met, the Kaiser Family Foundation has found.

Meantime, nearly three-quarters of youth with major depression did not receive mental health treatment, according to Mental Health America’s 2023 State of Mental Health report.

The COVID-19 pandemic exposed the long-term need for more behavioral health services, especially in rural areas. And in May 2022, the shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde presented an immediate demand for help for children living between El Paso and San Antonio, says Dr. Peter Thompson, chair of TTUHSC El Paso’s Department of Psychiatry. 

“Mass shootings and the lingering effects of the pandemic have cast a shadow over the mental health of our youth, often causing fear, anxiety and uncertainty,” Thompson says. “Particularly in rural communities, the echoes of mental health struggles often go unheard. Our programs are critical in these underserved areas because they expand access to needed mental health services, but also foster resilience and promote well-being.” 

Schools and primary care providers can connect children to the program, and appointments can be held virtually at home, school, health clinics or by telephone. 

“Our goal with Rural Telepsych for Youth is to ensure that rural communities are no longer isolated in terms of mental health struggles and access to mental health care,” Thompson says. “We hope to continue cultivating programs like this that break barriers so children are receiving the help they need long before mental health conditions impact their development, while also empowering communities to reduce stigmas and advocate for their health care.”

A Division of Health Care Service Corporation, a Mutual Legal Reserve Company, an Independent Licensee of the Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association