Bringing Behavioral Health Care to Nebraska

The COVID-19 pandemic has made the disparities in access to health care, particularly behavioral health, starkly evident. Nebraska has its own challenges providing the care its residents need due to the lack of qualified providers in the state. Some health care and education institutions, however, are working toward minimizing the gaps in behavioral health by encouraging students to explore the behavioral health field. 

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), one in five Americans reports experiencing mental illness each year; that’s 6.5 million people dealing with everything from schizophrenia to depression–and those are only the people who report their conditions. In Nebraska alone, more than 257,000 adults live with a mental health condition, and 22,000 children between the ages of 12 and 17 suffer from depression. 

The numbers are staggering and unfortunately, there are not enough behavioral health providers to go around. The University of Nebraska Medical Center Behavioral Health Education Center of Nebraska (BHECN) reports that 88 counties in Nebraska have a shortage of mental health professionals, and 32 counties lack any type of behavioral health provider.

Mary Dishman, MSN, is a current student studying to be a psychiatric-mental health nurse practitioner. “The most challenging part about practicing in mental health is the lack of care, especially in our underserved populations and rural areas,” she says. “Patients should not have to wait four to six weeks or even months to be seen by a practitioner.” 

She says that the rise of telehealth has improved access to care, but to help address the root of the problem, more health care providers must enter the behavioral health field. Many first-time nurses and health care professionals believe the only places offering opportunities for mental health services are state-run facilities. According to the American Association of Nurse Practitioners, however, public health departments, addiction and treatment clinics, hospitals, correctional facilities, private practices, and community organizations all have a need for qualified mental health practitioners.

Some organizations are trying to do something about the shortage. Clarkson College in Omaha, Neb. recently hosted a recruiting event for students enrolled in their Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) program option.The gathering focused on the Psychiatric Mental-Health Nurse Practitioner option the institution offers that allows students to earn their Master of Science in Nursing and become certified mental health nurse practitioners. 

“We want students to know, even before they graduate, that there are numerous options within the behavioral health field for them,” says Jen Wilson, Academic Advisor at Clarkson College. 

Wilson helped organize the event, which featured students like Dishman who are currently enrolled in the Psychiatric-Mental Health Nurse Practitioner option, as well as faculty who teach in the program and practice in the field. “Hearing from nurses who are practicing in the mental health field allows students to see firsthand the impact behavioral health providers can have on patients and communities,” says Wilson. 

“The most rewarding part of practicing in a mental health setting is getting to help patients not only feel better, but also to have hope,” says Dishman. “I know that I will not help every patient who walks into my office, but even if I can help them with small changes, that is a win.”