Editorial Roundup: Nebraska

Lincoln Journal-Star. May 19, 2022.

Editorial: Mental health a quiet crisis needing attention

There’s a quiet, often unnoticed pandemic raging throughout the country that’s hitting especially hard in Nebraska. But it’s not from COVID-19 or any other virus.

The crisis is in mental health.

“It is the bigger pandemic,” CenterPointe CEO Topher Hansen told the Journal Star’s Zach Hammack. “It’s a little quieter, but it’s huge out there and it’s not necessarily resolving in the same way. You can’t get a vaccine for that.”

And it’s extremely difficult for Nebraskans to access mental health care amid a shortage of providers and unprecedented demand for services – from inpatient stays to outpatient counseling visits.

The numbers behind the demand that Hammack unearthed are staggering.

Nearly one in five Nebraskans, close to 20% of the population, has a diagnosable mental health or substance use disorder, a number that may continue to grow in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and the illness, isolation, grief and trauma it created.

At Bryan Health, online behavioral health screens were up by 17% in 2021 compared to three years ago. CenterPointe, which offers outpatient and inpatient addiction and mental health treatment programs in Lincoln and Omaha served nearly 4,270 people in 2020-21, a 26% increase from 2019-20.

And, sadly, last year was a record-setting one for Bryan’s mental health emergency room.

Expansion over the last few years allowed Bryan to treat all those who sought care. But statewide, Nebraska lacks the resources and personnel to meet the demand.

While the number of psychiatric prescribers, psychologists and mental health therapists in the state increased by more than 30% from 2010 to 2020, Nebraska still lags far behind, with eight psychiatrists per 100,000 people compared to the national average of 14 per 100,000.

The situation is especially dire in rural areas, where there are just three psychiatrists for 100,000 people. In fact, 88 of Nebraska’s 93 counties meet the federal threshold to be considered mental health professional shortage areas. In 29 counties, there is no behavioral health provider.

The crisis must immediately be addressed, not only by mental health providers but by state and local governments.

Specifically, the governments, as they have done for doctors and other medical professionals should establish programs aimed at retaining mental health workers in the state, increasing their pay and, perhaps, providing even greater incentives to bring mental health treatment to rural areas.

Insurance providers also should be required to cover mental health treatment, an issue which might have to be addressed at the federal level.

That sort of action is critical to address the quiet pandemic that’s directly affecting one-fifth of Nebraskans, who deserve health care, mental or otherwise, and culturally and economically negatively impacting the entire state