UPDATE: Closing the mental health care gap in East Texas
By Katy Butterwick
EHF Program Officer
A young boy sits in a waiting room nervously kicking his dangling feet. A 30-year-old woman stares at the ceiling across the room, shutting out almost everything around her. They are just two of the hundreds of adults and children in all stages of mental health crisis who used to be on waiting lists, not sitting inside waiting rooms. But thanks to a first-of-it’s-kind partnership between EHF, Seminary of the Southwest (SSW) and Burke, low-income families in East Texas are now getting easier access to desperately needed mental health services.
As EHF announced in 2015, The Bishop Dena A. Harrison Fellows Program places recent seminary master's in counseling graduates with Burke, a rural mental health agency serving 12 East Texas counties. The 12-county region has an average of only one mental health provider for each 10,000 residents. 88% of Burke’s clients are from households earning less than $20,000 a year. 84% are unemployed.
EHF's investment in the program allows the fellows to earn a salary and benefits while they complete 3,000 hours of required on-the-job, supervised, post-graduate training to become fully-licensed counselors. They're working with disadvantaged, rural families at no cost to Burke’s clinics.
The first two Harrison Fellows, Staci Hubbard and Stephanie Knott, began their supervised internships at Burke last summer and they’ve already seen 200 low-income patients. Without the Fellows program, Staci and Stephanie’s clients would have been on waiting lists for services.
Burke’s experience in serving populations in and around Lufkin and Nacogdoches confirms what EHF’s work with congregations there has indicated -- the mental health needs in that area of East Texas are particularly pronounced. Children and adults are dealing with more advanced, serious mental illness.
Filling the mental health provider gap in rural areas has proven particularly challenging across the country. However, universities and medical schools have found success when they’re able to recruit students from rural areas. When these students graduate, they’re the most likely to return home to rural areas to practice. A key goal for the Harrison Fellows program is that after counselors complete the program, they’ll decide to stay and work permanently with underserved families in rural communities. That’s why SSW has already developed a plan to recruit students from East Texas to the Harrison Fellows program.
EHF is inspired by how much there is to learn from this growing program. Harrison Fellows are benefiting from a high-quality clinical experience. SSW is able to follow up with the fellows to learn how their education at the Seminary has helped or could have better helped them succeed. Burke gains the counselors needed to address the urgent mental need in their rural counties.
But the ultimate beneficiaries are a young boy, a 30-year-old woman and hundreds of other East Texas residents. Because for these patients, help with mental health issues now means spending a few minutes in a waiting room, not weeks or months languishing on a waiting list.