Healthcare Technology Featured Article

December 13, 2013

USDA Investing $50M in Rural Mental Health Treatment, Telemedicine

Tom Vilsack, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, has challenged the USDA to invest up to $50 million in mental health services, including telemedicine solutions, for rural populations.

"The USDA investments in mental healthcare facilities will reduce the difficulty many rural families face in accessing mental health help," Vilsack stated. "These funds can also help expand and improve upon the services already offered by mental health facilities in rural communities, many of which increasingly are focused on helping military veterans."

Rates of suicide in rural areas, according to the American Psychological Association (APA), are 54 percent higher than they are in urban areas. Rural populations contain a higher proportion of people most at risk for mental health conditions, including the chronically ill and the elderly.

In fact, depression is significantly more prevalent in rural areas than in urban areas. However, because rural areas have fewer than half the number of psychologists per 100,000 residents than urban areas do, primary care physicians without sufficient training handle most depression complaints.

Telemedicine is helping rural South Carolina's hospital emergency departments to receive mental health evaluations from remote psychiatrists. Thanks to an initiative by the University of South Carolina School of Medicine and the South Carolina Department of Mental Health, 18 rural hospitals can use telemedicine to access psychiatrists 16 hours per day, seven days per week.

The University of Alabama's College of Community Health Sciences (CCHS) also provides tele-psychiatry services in rural areas. Through a program administered by the West Alabama Mental Health center, patients in five rural Alabama counties can talk to UA psychologists using telemedicine.

Other rural Alabama facilities, including county jails, youth services centers and mental health centers, have asked for access to CCHS tele-psychiatry program, and the university recently received federal funding to expand their tele-psychiatry efforts.

Programs like those in South Carolina and Alabama show the possibilities for using telemedicine for mental health treatment. Hopefully, with the additional financial commitment from the USDA, programs like these can expand all over rural America.

Edited by Cassandra Tucker

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