Hays County has one mental health care provider for every 1,158 residents—a ratio that places the county 51st out of the 254 counties in the state, according to rankings compiled by the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute.
As the county continues its recent population surge, more mental health care resources are needed to serve what many in the industry say is a historically underserved area.
Various local mental health care providers have responded to the growing demand by expanding services in the past year—whether by extending psychiatric services through technological advances or opening additional facilities.
Survey respondents in Hays County reported an average of three days in the past 30 in which their mental health was poor, according to the institute’s data. This includes stress, depression and emotional problems.
Many in the health care industry say mental health care is a clear area of need virtually everywhere in the country, but it is often the elephant in the room.
LeAn Corbett, who directs the new senior care unit at Central Texas Medical Center in San Marcos, said she has seen such hesitancy to take care of one’s mental health in her years working for mental health providers.
“There’s a stigma to mental illness,” Corbett said. “No one really wants to address that.”
One way Seton Medical Center Hays in Kyle is addressing the Hays County community’s mental health care needs is by using telepsychiatry to care for patients with mental health concerns.
Telepsychiatry, which uses telecommunications to connect psychiatrists to patients, is one of the most effective ways to provide mental health care access to patients in underserved areas, according to the American Psychiatric Association. Dr. Roger McRoberts is among the area psychiatrists who use the video conferencing method of providing psychiatric services at Seton Hays.
McRoberts said he admits to being somewhat skeptical at first of the effectiveness of telepsychiatry, but he said the results have been positive.
“It’s actually worked really well,” he said. “If you asked me if I would rather see someone face-to-face [versus via video conferencing], I’d rather see them face-to-face. But if the question is not seeing the patient at all versus seeing them on [teleconference], I’d see them on [teleconference]every time. This is a way of getting people the resources who wouldn’t otherwise have it.”
A lack of psychiatrists requires mental health care providers to deliver care in innovative and efficient ways, McRoberts said. Because of telepsychiatry, he said, Seton Hays is meeting its patients’ needs without a psychiatrist staffed on-site.
According to McRoberts, Seton Hays sees about one to two psychiatric patients per week on average, whereas about 50 patients are seen daily at University Medical Center Brackenridge in Austin.
Seton Healthcare Family is content with using telepsychiatry at Seton Hays for now but will reassess its needs in the future, McRoberts said. Demand may rise to a level at which a psychiatrist will be needed at the hospital, he said.
“At Seton Hays there is not much of a limitation in terms of [the hospital’s]ability to access us,” McRoberts said. “They call me, and I’m on-screen within an hour a vast majority of the time.”
The senior care unit at CTMC is among the most recent additions to the growing list of mental health care providers in Hays County. The acute, inpatient facility has 13 beds and operates 24/7 to provide psychiatric care to people requiring special care and those who are typically limited in their independence.
Often that means caring for patients in their 70s and older, although early-onset diseases can cause younger patients into such lifestyles, Corbett said.
Several psychiatric facilities for geriatric patients exist in San Antonio and Austin, but none existed in Hays County prior to the unit’s February launch, Corbett said.
“It’s just a huge need in our area,” she said. “When they began doing market research they found that people from our community were having to travel far and into traffic to get the services they needed, so it was very welcomed that people could stay in the community.”
Medical doctors who specialize in treating geriatric patients and licensed psychiatrists are staffed 24/7 at the unit. The program accepts patients with a psychiatric diagnosis—such as depression, bipolar disorder or schizophrenia—as well as a chronic medical condition. The average stay is about 10 to 14 days, Corbett said.
Corbett said the hospital-based unit already has success stories.
“In general we have had a lot of great outcomes,” she said. “We [have]had a lot of people be able to go back to where they were living and be successful again.”
In August, Oceans Behavioral Hospital will become the second psychiatric facility for geriatric patients in San Marcos. As Oceans’ eighth facility in Texas, the 20,000-square-foot clinic will be located at 1106 N. I-35.
Hill Country Mental Health and Developmental Disabilities Centers opened a Kyle satellite clinic in 2013, the city’s first.
Because of a rapid rise in demand, Hill Country MHDD moved its Kyle clinic in April to a larger space and hired three additional staff members, said Dawn Brunkenhoefer, center director for Hays and Blanco counties.
“We didn’t anticipate having that many people come out,” Brunkenhoefer said. “You’d think Kyle is so close to San Marcos [that the clinic would not need to be large], but the satellite clinic serves people in Niederwald, Buda and all the way out to Dripping Springs.”
The clinic also delivers psychiatric care through telemedicine, she said.
Seton Healthcare Family spokesperson Steve Taylor said the organization is taking an active approach to extending mental health care access in the region.
“When we started doing [telemedicine]we had a total of four or five psychiatrists,” Taylor said. “Now we have 30. We are aggressively trying to fill what is a gaping need in Travis County, let alone in Central Texas.”