Hawaii teens go off-island for counseling: Any other options?

A report shows Hawaii teens seeking mental health treatment often have to leave the island to find it. What are patients in other remote areas trying?

Marina Riker/AP
Scott Shimabukuro, a clinical psychologist in the Hawaii Department of Health's Child and Adolescent Mental Health Division, and Lynn Fallin, deputy director of behavioral health, pose at the Hawaii Department of Health offices in Honolulu on May 24. Dozens of mentally ill teens are sent to the mainland for treatment each year because they can't find the proper services in the islands.

Many patients in rural or remote areas of the country must travel long distances to meet with a counselor or receive mental health treatment, but some young patients face a much more burdensome trip by plane or boat.

Some Hawaii teenagers have faced such long waits for treatment that healthcare providers send them to the mainland, reports the Associated Press. This takes them away from the support of friends and family, leaving authorities looking for strategies employed by other communities.

An ongoing shortage of mental health providers, especially for those trained to work with specific populations such as adolescents or veterans, has strained public health resources in many communities throughout the United States – especially in rural areas.

Noting the lack of mental healthcare options in many remote areas, the US Department of Agriculture has invested $50 million in rural mental health access, especially for veterans, part of an overall strategy to integrate more mental health services into primary care, to which rural patients have better access.

In some communities, local leaders are being trained to recognize when someone may be in need of immediate mental health services. The Mental Health First Aid course, originally developed in Australia but adapted by the health departments of Maryland and Missouri, trains rural community and faith leaders to recognize signs that a patient is suicidal or in need of other help and to identify counseling resources.

"The course helps participants to not only gain confidence in their capacity to approach and offer assistance to others, but also to improve their personal mental health," reported the US Department of Health and Human Services after investigating the program.

A 21st-century solution, the growing practice of telepsychiatry, enables patients in remote or underserved areas to meet with counselors over live video stream. The new practice followed telemedicine – where doctors might remotely check a patient's heart rate – but telepsychiatry shows more promise, Kristine Crane reported for US News and World Report. 

Designed for patients whose remote residency limits their access to counselors, telepsychiatry can give patients at busy community hospitals the help they need without adding to patient rolls in already overburdened emergency rooms. In South Carolina, where most therapists live in or near the capital, a 2009 pilot study turned into an ongoing practice. Psychiatrists now have about 400 remote consultations per month, saving $1,400 per episode.

Such remote counseling does have disadvantages, as counseling sessions require a secure connection because of privacy laws, and it makes a "human touch" impossible.

"A caring touch or handing a patient a tissue can never be possible,” noted Hind Benjelloun, a crisis psychiatrist based in Washington, D.C., who meets with some patients via computer, in an interview with US News and World Report. “I am unable to clearly see self-inflicted wounds or tears.”

But where face-to-face counseling isn't possible, virtual therapy can help fill a much needed void, proponents say.

“In a more rural area, nobody has access [to psychiatric care],” Geoffrey Boyce, executive director of InSight Telepsychiatry, told US News and World Report. "[Telepsychiatry is] enormously more affordable at that point.”

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