New telemedicine initiative closes gaps in mental health care

The Fauquier Free Clinic in Warrenton is running a new statewide initiative aimed at providing more mental health services to people without insurance – and the program will eventually expand to clinics in the Fredericksburg area.

The needs in Warrenton already reflect what is happening locally and across the state and nation. Shannon Raybuck, the Fauquier Clinic’s mental health coordinator, described an increasing number of people with depression and anxiety and a decreasing number of doctors treating them.

According to the Health Resources and Services Administration, at least 94% of Virginia counties and cities have a shortage of mental health professionals. A Fredericksburg-area task force, the Rappahannock Area Behavioral Workforce, held its second summit last week to address the issue, and members reviewed all-too-familiar statistics.

It's bleak and ominous: 'Lack of mental health providers' topic at local summit

Last week’s gathering was attended by local and state officials from schools, hospitals and public health departments, who focused on the need for behavioral health professionals.

According to the taskforce, Virginia ranks 37th nationwide for the number of psychiatrists, psychologists, licensed social workers, counselors, therapists, and nurses specializing in mental health care. It even ranks 39th in services available to adults, according to Mental Health America.

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The Virginia Telemental Health Initiative aims to address some of the bottlenecks. The free program is only available to patients at the Warrenton Clinic, which serves about 2,000 people in Fauquier and Rappahannock counties who are underinsured or have no health insurance at all.

By next month, the service will offer virtual appointments to patients at five other clinics across the state. More facilities, including the Moss Free Clinic in Fredericksburg, will be added throughout 2023, according to a press release.

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The Fauquier Clinic was chosen to pilot the program because it has been connecting patients and providers via telehealth platforms since 2016, Raybuck said. As COVID-19 struck, other clinicians — in both the medical and mental health fields — recognized the value of virtual appointments, Raybuck said, and snapped up available appointment slots on telemedicine platforms.

People can experience a mental crisis due to many different situations. Crisis attacks related to mental illness can feel incredibly overwhelming. A mental health crisis can look different for everyone, and some may not experience the warning signs of a crisis.

The new initiative is aimed exclusively at patients in free and non-profit clinics, she said. The Virginia Telehealth Network worked with the Virginia Department of Behavioral and Developmental Services, the University of Virginia Center for Telehealth, the Mid-Atlantic Telehealth Resource Center, and the Virginia Association of Free and Charitable Clinics.

ViTel Net, a Virginia-grown telemedicine platform, provides the technological backbone of the service. Providers are graduate students who must complete clinical work to earn their licenses. They offer their services for free and are supervised by paid doctors.

While the first batch of patients are based in Fauquier or Rappahannock counties, those who treat them and those who oversee psychiatrists’ work could live anywhere in Virginia, Raybuck said.

“I’m really looking forward to it too,” Raybuck said, adding that this type of arrangement could potentially allow more clinics to remain open.

Last month, Fredericksburg Counseling Services, a free clinic that has provided mental health care to low-income people in the area for 60 years, announced that it was closing by the end of the year. It also used graduate students who needed clinical training, and while there was no shortage of interns, Fredericksburg Counseling couldn’t find people to supervise them, said Catherine Jennings, the board’s chair.

“Without staff, nothing works,” she said.

The Fauquier Clinic began scheduling appointments via the new virtual platform about three weeks ago and is already nearing capacity for the two virtual providers, Raybuck said. She is careful not to overbook until those involved get a better handle on the needs of the new patients.

She’s excited not only because more people are receiving benefits for depression and anxiety, which have been exacerbated by the pandemic, but also because free clinics will play a role in educating the next generation of mental health providers.

“We’re planting all these seeds for the professional world to come,” she said.

Free psychiatric clinic is closing due to staff shortages

Fredericksburg Counseling Services Inc., which has operated for 60 years, is closing because it cannot find staff to run the program.

Local authorities see an increased demand for suicide prevention courses

The ongoing fallout from the pandemic has highlighted the need for more mental health services.

Adolescent mental health has become an issue of growing concern. Crisis attacks related to mental illness can feel incredibly overwhelming, especially for teenagers. A mental health crisis can look different for everyone, and some may not experience the warning signs of a crisis.

Cathy Dyson: 540/374-5425

[email protected]

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