The Nebraska Broadband Bridge Program, a program resulting from the Nebraska Broadband Bridge Act (LB 388), could improve mental wellness in rural areas of the state.
According to a 2021 study by Mental Health America, Nebraska ranked 22nd in the country for Mental Health Workforce availability, with 380 people per one mental health professional.
However, these professionals aren’t equally distributed across the state.
Dr. Dave Miers, director of behavioral health at Bryan Medical Center in Lincoln, said that in rural parts of Nebraska, the closest therapist could be one to two counties away. However, telehealth services allow an individual to work with anyone across the state.
A stronger broadband presence increases the access and quality of those telehealth sessions. Thus, providing greater mental health care access.
Miers also serves as part of the Rural Wellness Program, an initiative consisting of a team of individuals who work to increase awareness about mental health and substance use in rural areas of the state.
“With rural families, what we’ve seen is there is more isolation and less resources in these communities,” Miers said.
According to Bruce Hugunin, executive director of A “Better Way” Therapy, a counseling service in Omaha, without a strong internet connection, it can be difficult to have a good session.
“During the pandemic, we were exclusively over telehealth,” Hugunin said. “If the internet connection was bad, clients would get cut off or the session would end completely.”
Miers and Hugunin both noted how telehealth and internet access allow practitioners in Omaha and Lincoln to reach clients in western Nebraska.
“We have conducted telehealth sessions with people in western Nebraska,” Hugunin said. “If they have a good internet connection, then we can have a session.” With telehealth availability, location isn’t a barrier to access care.
In Miers’ case, telehealth and strong internet allows Bryan Medical Center to expand its emergency mental health services to hospitals across the state. If a patient enters the emergency room of one of 10 hospitals contracted with Bryan Medical Center, they can be assessed by a mental health professional in Lincoln, and the professional at Bryan can determine if the patient needs to be admitted or not. According to Miers, this saves both money and travel time, as the patient doesn’t need to be transported to Lincoln for an assessment.