Austin groups get creative to fill gaps in mental health care access

Austin

AUSTIN (KXAN) — With a global pandemic, a movement for racial justice and a polarizing election, 2020 has offered a host of stressful experiences which can exacerbate mental health challenges.

But as many Austinites have found, it is often difficult to seek mental health care during the pandemic, especially if you don’t have the means to pay out of pocket.

Several new organizations and collaborations have cropped up recently in the Austin area to address the gaps some are experiencing in access to mental health care.

Lack of access to mental health care

Even prior to COVID-19, many Texans did not have adequate access to mental health care and national nonprofit Mental Health America placed Texas second to last in its latest rankings for access to mental health care among U.S. states. NAMI Central Texas Executive Director Karen Ranus noted that Austin faces a shortage of mental healthcare workers combined with a lack of providers who are willing to accept insurance.

“We have a lot of providers who are not taking insurance anymore because the insurance has been such a headache for them that they are not doing it,” Ranus said. She also noted that many people are without health insurance because they’ve lost their employment during the pandemic.

Austin does have free resources available for those experiencing a mental health crisis or in need of one-time care (you can call the Integral Care crisis helpline at 512-472-4357 or 472-HELP).

But Ranus noted, what Austin needs more of is access to free tools to help people before they even get to a mental health crisis.

“That will be a really serious heavy toll on our community if everyone is in crisis,” she added.

NAMI, which is volunteer-based, has needed to get creative during the pandemic, partnering with groups like Vida Clinic and Samaritan Center to bring more clinical options to the Austin area.

Other groups are getting creative as well, launching new organizations this fall to break down hurdles for Austinites seeking mental health assistance.

The Mental Wellness Network

Jo Namayanja officially launched the Mental Wellness Network earlier this month.

The nonprofit, which Namayanja explained is finalizing its tax-exempt status, aims to connect veterans and low-income individuals in the Austin area with free or low-cost mental healthcare.

The network has curated a database of free and low-cost mental health services in the Austin area which is available on their website. Individuals who qualify as low-income or as veterans can also get matched through the network’s website with Austin therapists who will meet with them for free.

Namayanja explained these therapists have donated their time to help out with this program.

“That eliminates the trouble of having to figure out what services do they offer? Will they take me?” she said.

Jo Namayanja of Austin poses for World Mental Health Day for her new nonprofit The Mental Wellness Network. (Photo Courtesy: Jo Namayanja.)

When Namayanja moved to Austin from Washington, D.C. a year ago, she tried to find a therapist to see for her anxiety. But what she found was that the process was more time-consuming and that the therapy co-pays were more expensive than where she lived previously. Even with insurance, she wound up paying a $100 co-pay for her therapy appointments.

“I found that if I, who am gainfully employed, found that $100 to be so much, that it must be very difficult for low income communities,” she reasoned.

During the pandemic, Namayanja’s anxiety was tested again, and she heard from many other people who were also facing mental health challenges. She decided to create the nonprofit at that point.

Now, she is trying to get the word out about the free and low-cost mental health services her nonprofit can connect people to, whether they live in Round Rock, Cedar Park, Pflugerville, Austin, Buda, Bastrop or Hays County.

“To me, mental health is just as important as physical health, and I just don’t understand why it gets the attention physical health gets,” Namayanja said.

ATX Mental Health Fund

Another group took a different approach to addressing the issue of Austinites’ access to mental health care with the newly created mutual-aid fund ATX Mental Health Fund over the past few months.

Samantha Meyer, a Licensed Professional Counselor Intern (meaning she is completing her supervised hours as a mental health professional), said she was inspired to create this fund because of other mutual aid efforts she’d seen spring up in Austin during the pandemic.

She described this program as Austinites “basically giving what they can and taking what they need.”

“I really like mutual aid because there isn’t a lot of gatekeeping for who can get involved or who can give,” Meyer explained. “You don’t have to be a philanthropist with millions of dollars, so the barrier to entry is really low.”

Those who want to donate to this fund can contribute as much or as little as they would like through an online partnership with nonprofit Open Collective.

A screenshot from the ATX Mental Health Fund Website. The fund was created as a mutual-aid program to help people living in the Austin area cover some of their mental healthcare needs during the pandemic.

Those seeking funds can apply through the website by requesting an amount needed and identifying the level of urgency of their request. Meyer said there will be no means testing for those who apply, but the application will ask for some demographic information and have some verification procedures in place to weed out fraudulent requests.

Those who apply can receive direct cash assistance up to $1,500 per request.

Meyer explained that this idea came to fruition over the summer and that applications for the funding opened up last week. Within the first 24 hours of the application being open, she said they received 20 requests.

“We expected the need there because we created the fund, but it has exceeded our expectations for the level of need that exists for this kind of assistance.”

Samantha Meyer, ATX Mental Health Fund founder

She explained that the board behind the fund will be meeting this week to determine how many of the initial requests can be met with the funding that has been donated.

The most popular requests so far, Meyer said, are for help covering individual therapy appointments.

As a mental health professional, Meyer said that she has seen many people in Austin facing a mixture of pandemic-related and financially driven stressors.

“For people in the service industry, musicians — a lot of the people that really make up the community of Austin — are in industries that are really hurting from the pandemic, and maybe they didn’t have access before, but now its especially difficult,” she noted.

“And then on top of that, you have the mental health crisis that is COVID, people are isolated, they are away from their support networks, its stressful and very anxiety provoking to be in the midst of a global pandemic.”

Meyer said that the organizers of the fund plan to have a check-in point in three months from now to assess what the need is but that the fund will likely continue for at least the next six months.

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