Having access to mental health care can be challenging, especially if you’re living in an area with very few mental health specialists. This can be especially troubling in rural areas, which already have issues attracting both medical and non-medical professionals because of the lower wages and higher cost of living compared to larger cities. However, lawmakers in Illinois have taken action by passing legislation that addresses the shortage of mental health practitioners in rural areas and makes it easier for psychiatrists and other mental health professionals to renew licenses and practices.
Lack of accessibility in rural communities
Although more people across America are receiving mental health care, there are still millions of Americans who do not receive treatment. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, more than 90% of the nation’s licensed therapists practice in urban areas, and approximately 60% of all rural counties lack even one practicing mental health specialist. 2021 data from Mental Health America suggests 57% of adults with a mental illness receive no treatment, and that over 26 million individuals experiencing a mental illness are going untreated. Lack of access is one major reason why. It can be extremely difficult for those living in rural areas or communities without much nearby support.
In addition, unemployment and lack of insurance affect rural areas at a higher rate, which makes it hard for people seeking treatment who are unable to afford the care they need. Unfortunately, rural Americans experience higher depression and suicide rates, which make access to high-quality mental health care all the more important.
A report issued by an Illinois task force on behavioral health identified Illinois has a 480-to-1 ratio of population to mental health professionals in rural communities. In addition, this data recorded:
- 93.7% of rural hospitals are in designated mental health shortage areas
- 81 out of 102 Illinois counties have no child and adolescent psychiatrists
But all hope is not lost as lawmakers have taken note and passed legislation in May 2022 to address the mental health shortage and increase access to high-quality mental health care. Geode Health in Westmont is one such mental health practice that is reaching out to residents in rural areas to let them know that licensed professionals are available to help.
What the new law provides
The new law, which was passed by bipartisan members of both chambers, could help alleviate shortages. The law provides financial relief to health care professionals who work and practice in rural areas around Illinois. It expands the eligibility for student loan repayment assistance, as well as expands the places where professionals who received financial aid can work, including privately-owned rural health clinics and hospitals that accept Medicare and Medicaid. This is a strong step towards improving access for those who need mental health care. More and more mental health services are expanding, like Geode Health, which will soon serve the greater Chicagoland area, and help alleviate the health care professional shortages.
Why this matters
The prevalence of mental illness is significantly higher for people living in rural areas and small towns compared with those living in cities and metropolitan suburbs. More specifically, certain conditions like depression and alcoholism are more prevalent in rural populations. The current economic environment also leads to a greater risk of depression and anxiety among those living in rural communities. Before this legislation passed, many states had been forced to cut mental health funding over time due to financial constraints. It’s important to understand how these factors affect our nation’s most vulnerable populations so that we can bring about positive change.
This new law is a bold way to bring mental health care to rural counties in need. Mental health care is often overlooked and underfunded—but it’s just as vital as any other kind of medical treatment. And while many people are aware of mental illness, there are still stigmas attached to it that prevent people from seeking help. At Geode Health, we want to educate the communities in which we serve to overcome these stigmas and provide adequate resources for those who need them most.