Access to rural mental health counseling gets a boost from telehealth options

Access to rural mental health counseling gets a boost from telehealth options
Photo by William Iven on Unsplash

RENO—The University of Nevada Reno’s Downing Clinic this month is touting its telehealth options for mental health services to Nevadans throughout the state, especially in rural communities. May is recognized nationally as Mental Health Awareness Month.

The Downing Clinic offers counseling services provided by graduate students in their final year of training before becoming professional counselors. It opened telehealth counseling appointments for new clients in July 2020 in response to impacts from the pandemic.

The use of telehealth services has increased dramatically since March 2020 and the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. The number of people reporting depression and anxiety has increased dramatically as well. The Kaiser Family Foundation reports four in ten individuals have reported symptoms of anxiety and depression during the pandemic, up from just one in ten from January through June 2019.

Individuals living in rural and frontier Nevada, however, have far less access to mental health care resources than their urban counterparts. UNR’s Office of Statewide Initiatives, in its Rural and Frontier Health Data Book, reports that most rural counties in the state have no licensed psychiatrists or psychologists and very few marriage and family therapists or licensed clinical professional counselors.

That’s where the Downing Clinic’s telehealth services come in, according to Megan Little, the clinic’s director.

Megan Little, Director of the Downing Clinic at University of Nevada, Reno. Photo by Ironside Photography / Stephen Ironside.

“Someone in an urban area is going to have access to a lot more resources,” said Little. “Here in Reno, there’s tons of agencies as well as a lot of private practices. In a rural community, depending on the size of the town, there may only be one counselor in that community or one mental health professional. If someone needs psychiatric medication, they may need to go to a primary care doctor instead of a psychiatrist because of the lack of mental health services in their area.”

Little said the Downing Clinic can schedule services for clients right away, whether they live in Reno or one of the farthest corners of the state. That option, she said, means rural residents don’t have to wait for months to get an appointment or drive several hours to the nearest counselor.

Another barrier to mental health treatment is the stigma that’s sometimes attached to it, Little said.

“Some of the issues we are seeing with our clients from rural Nevada are universal to what everyone is experiencing during the pandemic – loneliness, depressive symptoms, anxiety, family/ relationship conflict,” she said. “There seems to be a stigma around receiving mental health support in rural areas. It seems to be from a lack of understanding of mental health and viewing it as a foreign concept instead of normalizing it to being similar to our physical health. We will quickly go see a medical doctor if something doesn’t seem right for us physically and we need to work to transition that mindset into our mental health as well.”

To break the stigma people need to normalize mental health, people who have received their own mental health services can help with that.

“For example, a male who has gone to counseling then opens up to other males about how he went to counseling to take care of his mental wellbeing changes the conversation and makes mental health services seem less intimidating when we know someone who has been through the process,” she said.

Little said one step rural communities could take to normalize mental health care and make telehealth session more accessible would be to put technology for telehealth sessions into private rooms in settings like a community center or public libraries where members of the community could rent out these spaces for their sessions.

The Downing Counseling Clinic at the University of Nevada, Reno offers sliding scale fees. The best way to get scheduled with the Downing Counseling Clinic is to email their office.

Source: University of Nevada, Reno