Expanding Health Resources for Texas

Texas’ population is growing faster than any other state and is also the most rural state in the nation. 

How do we balance these contradicting identities and provide services to all individuals in our state? 

In Texas, there are more than 400 health care professional shortage areas – many of which are in rural areas. People living in those areas cannot afford the time or financial burden to travel to the nearest health provider which could be hundreds of miles away. The result is that most of them do not get the help they need. 

This is particularly true for those who need mental health care. 

“Over 67 percent of all licensed psychologists live in five counties in the state. Ideally, you want one psychologist for every 30,000 residents,” said Dr. Tim Elliott, professor of counseling psychology. 

Over the last eight years, Dr. Elliott, along with colleagues in the School of Public Health, tested a solution. Through the Telehealth Counseling Clinic, more than 5,000 underserved individuals in rural communities across five counties have gotten free or reduced fee counseling services.

The clinic is the first of its kind in the nation – bridging the gaps in mental health treatment for patients in rural areas. Patients get help in two ways - through video conference technology in the comfort of their own home and sessions at five remote clinics. Services are provided by a team of counseling psychology doctoral students and doctoral-level supervising faculty.

“Before we were in the area, many people with mental health concerns and environmental stressors did not have access to counseling,” said Dr. Carly McCord, clinical director of the Telehealth Counseling Clinic. “Rural communities are often underserved and underfunded.”

The clinic is expanding its services by adding and extending group therapy options to their remote sites including Centerville, Navasota, Brenham and Madisonville. With its new expanded reach, the clinic has been able to assist more clients with targeted care. 

“We’ve had people who were in such distress that they were suicidal,” Dr. Elliot said. “Through our videoconferences, we are able to physically see patients and pay attention to their appearance and well-being. This is beneficial because we can notify authorities that an incident may occur. Addressing these crises in this manner also prevents additional costs accrued by services provided by police departments, state MHMR personnel, local emergency rooms and psychiatric hospitalizations.”

The clinic’s focus on building positive experiences is helping to break down the stigma of mental health care in these rural communities.

“While it can be challenging to get counseling support groups started in rural areas, once the word spreads, we have been able to get more people signed up. Once clients have enrolled in one type of service, they are more likely to engage in other treatment options,” Dr. McCord said. 

Outside of providing mental health services to the community, the clinic trains doctoral students from the Counseling Psychology program in the Department of Educational Psychology and the School of Public Health from the Texas A&M Health Science Center. 

To date, over 45 doctoral students have trained through the program – many of which have gone on to careers in telepsychology. New doctoral students often transfer from other programs because of the cutting-edge training at the clinic.

“I’ve worked as a counselor at a lot of different agencies. I don’t think any of them have been as engaged and invested in the well-being of the communities that they’ve served,” said Kevin Farlow, former counselor at the clinic. “[The Telehealth Counseling Clinic] is on the ground in rural communities that have never really had access to mental health care services, and they’ve been there for years. Not only did I get a chance to participate in that really cutting edge work, I got to be a part of the emerging research program at the clinic.”

Learn more about the clinic at tx.ag/telehealthclinic