Making rural behavioral health a priority in Central Illinois

Many rural areas in the United States, including Central Illinois, face a shortage of behavioral health services essential to meet the needs of smaller communities.

Nationally, 65% of rural counties do not have access to a psychiatrist, and 81% lack a psychiatric nurse practitioner. As a result, options for treating mental health and substance use disorders are limited in these areas.

Mental health professionals’ shortages mean residents must travel long distances to receive behavioral health services. One of the more extenuating factors that prevent people from getting services is a lack of transportation, said Rosecrance Central Illinois Executive Director Melissa Pappas. Rural communities lack public transit, and individuals often have a one-vehicle or no-vehicle household, making it difficult for them to attend appointments.

Working toward a solution means collaborating with partners in centralized locations to ease the burden of commuting to an area for services. Additionally, there is a push for virtual services to eliminate the issue of transportation.

Rosecrance has been doing both to ensure people in rural areas get the behavioral health support they need.

“If you don’t have community support programs to go out and meet the community member in their environment to meet that need, they’re not going to be able to get to you at the brick-and-mortar,” Pappas said.

In addition to logistical challenges, attitudes and beliefs also pose barriers to seeking help. Thanks to a robust educational effort in rural communities, individuals are less reluctant to receive help to end their substance use. But that same attitude isn’t extended to mental health.

Many people who seek help for their substance use face challenges that are also related to their mental health. Unfortunately, mental health is often not given the same attention, Pappas said. More work and education need to be done to end the stigma surrounding mental health. This will help people feel more comfortable and open to accepting a path forward.

“The problem is that mental health treatment can be seen as ‘new age,’ which makes it easier for someone to say, ‘I drink too much’ instead of saying, ‘I drink too much because I want to end my life,’” Pappas said.

Pappas has also made an additional effort to increase positive mental health outcomes by voluntarily joining a local Recovery Oriented System of Care.

ROSCs aim to address the mental health and substance use challenges in a community. They bring together service providers and community members, including peers with lived experience. Together, these volunteers review local trends, death rates, suicides, and other relevant data to identify community needs. They then discuss what each organization is currently doing and plan ways to work together to directly assist the community through education and support.

“Providing support to people who are struggling isn’t just the responsibility of a behavioral health organization; it’s the responsibility of a community. It is changing the culture of behavioral health treatment,” Pappas said.