LAS CRUCES ‒ Local and state officials and health care providers gave a public briefing Wednesday morning to Secretary of Health and Human Services, Xavier Becerra, about the state of behavioral health services in New Mexico, how health centers in schools have helped bridge gaps, and why continued federal support for the initiatives is necessary.
Becerra, a member of President Joe Biden’s cabinet, attended the 90-minute briefing at Arrowhead Park Early College High School, located adjacent to the New Mexico State University campus, with U.S. Senator Ben Ray Luján, DN. .M., who visited the area this week while Congress is in recess.
New Mexico’s high school youth leads the nation in reporting feelings of sadness or hopelessness, attempted suicide, heroin use, and alcohol use before age 13, according to data from the 2019 Youth Risk and Resiliency Survey, which notably predates the COVID -19 pandemic and the consequences of disease, fatalities and economic and social disruption from the period of emergency closures of public spaces to the present.
Amy Himelright, mental health and academic counseling coordinator at Las Cruces Public Schools, said there was clear evidence that those conditions have worsened since then, with high percentages of students reporting emotional health problems, increased anxiety and suicidality.
She said federal funding, including COVID-19 relief money, had been used to contract with providers and hire additional social workers in the state’s second-largest school district, and to train staff in assessing needs. and referring students to services as needed.
988 crisis hotline
Two tools brought up during the briefing were New Mexico’s new 988 crisis hotline for emotional or mental crises, including substance abuse, which debuted in July and; and the establishment of a health center within school environments.
Gayle Porter, a licensed clinical supervisor for the 988 service, said call volume for the new service and the decade-old crisis and access line in New Mexico was heavy.
“We’re there 24-7, 365 when a crisis occurs,” she said, referring to the service’s 24-hour response, “often at the end of the night when there are no distractions, and the responsibilities not there. We get the calls from people at Christmas when family is their triggering event. We are happy to be able to support people when they are at that time.”
The 988 mental wellness service can be accessed by calling 988 or visiting https://988nm.org. It is a resource for individuals who are concerned about another person or who are themselves concerned or in crisis related to substance abuse, emotional distress, or who need referral for community services.
The service offers alternatives for anyone who is not comfortable talking to someone directly over the phone. Texting is available by texting “TALK” to 988, and an online chat service is available at https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/chat.
The presenters said health centers in schools are helping to close gaps in available services in a state with insufficient health care providers (including mental health care), some of whom do not accept Medicaid and where many residents have to travel an hour or more for services, further increasing inequality. for lower-income residents.
Secondary School Services
Representatives from La Clinica de Familia described medical and behavioral health services it provides to six county high schools within LCPS and the Gadsden Independent School District south of Las Cruces. The clinics provide safe settings for young people to access some acute or other medical care, behavioral health services, inoculations, examinations and referrals to other services at the school.
The presenters also discussed the collaboration between LCPS and a network of organizations to make services available. Rose Ann Vasquez of Families and Youth Inc. said, “We may not have an abundance of behavioral health resources here in the county, but I want to let you know that we have an abundance of dedication to working together to fill the gaps and needs for our children and our students.” .”
A current junior high school student and her guardian shared personal experiences of navigating emotional health services during her freshman year and the challenges of helping peers in need of help.
Las Cruces City Councilor Kasandra Gandara, a licensed social worker, continued to discuss collaborations through Doña Ana County Resilience Leaders, a project founded in 2018 with the goal of connecting county residents to essential services, overcoming financial and other barriers. overcoming and advocating for affordable housing.
In response to a question from the invited public, the senator pledged to encourage greater support for programs that give children access to outdoor activities as a foundation for their health.
Luján and Becerra spoke little at the event other than the introductions, but both men said the long-standing stigmas about mental wellbeing and seeking care versus “making it difficult” need to change.
In his own working-class family, Becerra recalled, “mental health was never something we thought about. You just move forward,” adding that there were financial risks and barriers to seeking care, even if it was available.
“It’s okay not to feel okay,” said Luján, adding: “It’s okay to say you’re not feeling well, you need to talk to someone… We’ll all do better because of it. “
Referring to his recovery from a stroke he suffered early this year, the senator said he had learned “if you’re not feeling well, don’t try to sleep it off. You need to go to professionals and experts.”