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Mental Health-Care Access Focus of New ND Partnership

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According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there was a 154% increase in telehealth visits during the last week of March in the United States, as the pandemic unfolded. (Adobe Stock)
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there was a 154% increase in telehealth visits during the last week of March in the United States, as the pandemic unfolded. (Adobe Stock)
January 5, 2021

BISMARCK, N.D. -- North Dakota has long dealt with a shortage of access to mental health care in rural areas. But efforts are ramping up to make sure treatment is available in hard-to-reach places.

The University of North Dakota and Sanford Health are carving out a multi-phase project designed to provide more resources at a time when more people are feeling stress due to the pandemic.

Andrew McLean chairs the psychiatry department at the UND medical school. He said early efforts included a web page with helpful tips, along with phone assessments. He said future phases could involve a more robust way of ensuring that patients can visit with a provider virtually - potentially closing gaps in some areas.

"As you go into the western part of the state, whether it's mental-health providers or whether it's addiction counselors, there's a particular issue of finding providers there," McLean said.

But he warned there are still a lot of unknowns surrounding the next phases, including whether insurance companies would still allow exemptions for virtual visits as they have during the COVID-19 crisis. McLean also suggested more talks are needed on who would take charge in setting up a reliable portal for such services across the region.

McLean said he anticipates the demand for telemedicine for mental-health issues still will be around after the pandemic. But as the planning takes shape, he said they know they will always be up against a key barrier.

"I think we're never going to grow enough behavioral-health providers. So, I think what we'll be seeing is there will be a need for the ongoing virtual care - whether that will come from within the state if we have enough people to do that, or some of the companies from outside," he said.

Even before the partnership, McLean's team placed an emphasis on training resident psychiatrists in providing services for rural areas as another way of addressing service gaps. North Dakota's mental health-care needs became pronounced when the state saw a 57% increase in suicides between 1999 and 2016, which topped the nation.

Mike Moen, Public News Service - ND