While in D.C. to advocate for MFTs in Medicare, Hollyn Smith (Family TEAM Leader-Kansas), had the opportunity to attend a policy event by the Bipartisan Policy Center on rural health. Typically, these events are attended by other policy think-tanks, congressional staffers, and other corporations with invested interest. In this post, Hollyn offers her unique perspective of attending the event as a grassroots advocate.
As I scanned the room, I saw badges from various political organizations from around the District being worn by individuals who were most likely assigned to cover this event by an executive with spiked curiosity. There was a wide variety in demographics of attendees ranging in, but not limited to, age, gender, race, political views, and healthcare profession. It is out of character for me to feel out of place in a room full of strangers, and in this very moment there was something different in the air. Everyone there, including myself, had an agenda to push; a need for their healthcare profession of choice to be heard. I could not quite put my finger on what it was that had me feeling “off.”
The former Congressmembers who were launching the Rural Health Task Force, through the Bipartisan Policy Center, began sharing their policy initiatives with the crowd; using healthcare statistics that I am sure struck a cord with more attendees than me. “40% higher suicide rates in rural America, and often times no emergency room or mental health professionals,” one panel member stated. I am originally from the middle of Kansas, and much of my family still resides in rural parts of the state. I understand the challenge of a town no longer feeling like a town as schools, grocery stores, medical centers, etc., begin to shut down or move to the next town over. As financial challenges increase for the providers of services, particularly in the health profession, a community becomes unsustainable, thus creating a decrease in the economic stability of the community. It is my shared opinion with this task force, that we in the mental health profession need to be looking for long term health solutions for constituents and providers. I went into the helping profession to assist in the growth of safety and strength within a community, in hopes that individuals would not have to go far looking for their needs to be met. I continue to have that mission, and recognize that something must change as business owners in my profession find themselves constrained by the financial challenges we face in rural and urban America.
A solution that was discussed is one that is a hot topic in the mental health profession right now: telehealth. It was suggested that access to telehealth would potentially help decrease the high burn out rate of clinicians and encourage younger clinicians to practice in rural areas, and I do not disagree. I would love to give back to my rural hometown communities, and with the privileges and opportunities that my current urban community provides me, I am choosing not to. A choice that increasingly weighs heavy on me. From family experience, they have had to be on waiting lists for months due to only one clinician in town, if any at all. When there hasn’t been a specialist in town, my family has had to drive hours for the services needed. I believe that increasing telehealth capabilities for all mental health professionals will not only grow the health profession in rural Kansas, but urban areas as well, as connecting providers and clients via the web will decrease the mental health shortage across the board and limited access in rural America.
During this event, mental health issues presenting as, or leading to, other health issues was discussed. We as MFTs know that there is a reason why we got to where we are mentally and physically, and by thinking holistically past the presenting problem, we are able to consider what else could be our clients’ health issue aside from the symptoms we see in front of us. Through the idea of integrative care with all health care providers, a model is created where working together creates overall healthier people which leads to more prosperous communities. Our rural communities need medical and mental healthcare professionals to broaden our lens that we view the needs of our clients through. In order for professions to stay alive, we as providers need to continue to be innovative with how we deliver our services to those in need, be flexible with the needs of the community we serve in, and continue to update the education we give the next generation of providers.
There it was- I felt a call to be at this task force event as a panel member stated, “Change won’t happen without grassroots efforts. We need people at the local level with a mission to improve their community.” That is me; I am the grassroots mission! Not that the initiatives that anyone there had were any less important than those of the MFT profession, it was the fact that our profession is unique in that we are still, in so much of the United States, in the grassroots phase of growth. We, as a profession, work hard every day to be recognized as legitimately qualified and equally educated mental health professional. To be no longer questioned of our abilities, and instead be turned to for expertise across any mental health initiative. The majority of us joined this helping profession with the intention to assist communities in becoming healthier, to be survivors, to thrive from the increase in mental health access; and so I raised my hand to ask the panel of former congress members a question. “Can your Task Force consider having a focus on the advancement of the Marriage and Family Therapy Profession? Can you help us receive equal rights and opportunities as all other mental health professionals at the same level of licensure?” This opportunity was one I will never forget, and further empowered me to continue fighting for what I believe in through my grassroots efforts within AAMFT’s Family TEAM.