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Austin nonprofit tackle barriers to mental health services

Austin American-Statesman - 7/24/2019

The Greater Austin YWCA is getting a boost to expand affordable mental health services in Central Texas, an area with too few services for the need.

The group recently received a $16,000 grant from nonprofit Austin Community Foundation, which connects charitable donors to local causes, to bolster services within Hays, Travis and Williamson counties.

The local YWCA also is attempting to reach more patients throughout the region by allowing them to conduct appointments via video chat, using a secure, cloud-based software.

"We're able to speak with people in a place they're comfortable," Rose Hernandez, the Greater Austin YWCA's lead therapist, said, adding that such services also are helpful for patients with disabilities.

The expansion of services could help fill the gaps in access to mental health services in Central Texas. In Hays and Williamson, for example, there's about one mental health provider for every 1,100 people, less than half of than the U.S. average. And according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, less than 40% of adults with a mental illness in Texas receive any form of treatment."Primarily the issue with Central Texas is that we have a doughnut hole when it comes to mental health services," said Deborah Cohen, a research assistant professor at the University of Texas and mental health professional.Cohen said in Central Texas there are two main types of providers of mental health care: local mental health authorities, which aim to serve low-income residents, and private practices, which can be costly. Laura Gomez-Horton, clinical director at the Greater Austin YWCA, said the average therapy session at a local private practice runs between $125-$180.

Many health insurance plans do not cover mental health services, and private practices often don't take health insurance, further creating obstacles to those in need of services. "Money is an incredible barrier if you're a middle class individual," Cohen said. Proximity to mental health providers can also be a hurdle, according to mental health professionals. As costs of living in Austin has gone up, Cohen said, many Austinites have moved to suburban cities outside Austin where there are no bus lines, or where one must travel an hour or more on public transit to access affordable mental health services. Hernandez said patients who live far from the Greater Austin YWCA'sSouth Austin location can also schedule appointments at borrowed-space branch locations in Round Rock, Pflugerville, and soon, Bastrop. The Greater Austin YWCA also offers free services to veteran women and victims of crime and sliding scale fees for all other patients as low as $10. Cohen said telemedicine appointments like the ones the YWCA is using are becoming more common, and there is reason to be hopeful that the barriers can be overcome.

"A lot of these problems are fixable, we just need to come together and think collaboratively," she said.


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