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Nurse Practitioners Filling Gap in Access to Rural Mental Health Care

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In rural areas of North Carolina, residents face huge barriers to accessing mental-health resources and treatment. (Adobe Stock)
In rural areas of North Carolina, residents face huge barriers to accessing mental-health resources and treatment. (Adobe Stock)
 By Nadia Ramlagan, Public News Service - NC - Producer, Contact
December 10, 2019

RALEIGH, N.C. — Access to mental-health care in rural communities continues to shrink, but a team of nurse practitioners aims to change that.

The University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill has received $6 million in federal funding to recruit, train and financially support 70 primary-care nurse practitioners specializing in mental health who will work exclusively in rural areas. Dr. Victoria Soltis-Jarrett, Carol Morde Ross distinguished professor of psychiatric-mental health nursing at the university, is leading the effort and said mental-health needs in the state are outpacing the number of health-care providers.

"The mental-health system in North Carolina is overwhelmed,” Soltis-Jarrett said. “So it's not that it's broken so much as it's just overwhelmed and inundated with referrals because primary care doesn't know necessarily how to manage these individuals."

Suicide is now the second-leading cause of death among the state's young people, and in 2016 more than 1,000 North Carolinians ended their own lives, according to the state Department for Health and Human Services.

Soltis-Jarrett added in the southeastern part of the state, natural disasters have compounded stress from the opioid crisis.

"One in particular is in the southeast of North Carolina where they've had a lot of tragedy with the two hurricanes, flooding, there's a lot of poverty,” she said.

She said allowing nurse practitioners to provide health care without oversight from physicians could allow nurses to expand their services even more.

"I've actually even had physicians say, 'Is there any way we can get rid of this restriction or requirement?' I think is how they put it,” she said.

The SAVE Act, introduced earlier this year by Rep. Josh Dobson and Sen. Ralph Hise from Spruce Pine, both Republicans, would lift state restrictions that now require nurse practitioners to be supervised by a physician.

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