Sen. Ben Ray Luján, Biden cabinet member briefed on behavioral health services in the region
By: Algernon D’Ammassa – Las Cruces Sun-News
LAS CRUCES ‒ Local and state officials and health providers gave a public briefing to Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra Wednesday morning on the state of behavioral health services in New Mexico, how school-based health centers have helped bridge gaps and why ongoing federal support for the initiatives is necessary.
Becerra, a member of President Joe Biden’s cabinet, sat for the 90-minute briefing at the Arrowhead Park Early College High School, located adjacent to the New Mexico State University campus, with U.S. Sen. Ben Ray Luján, D-N..M., who has been visiting the area this week while Congress is in recess.
New Mexico’s high-school-age youth lead the nation in reporting feelings of sadness or hopelessness, suicide attempts, use of heroin and consuming alcohol before the age of 13, per data from the 2019 Youth Risk and Resiliency Survey, which notably predates the COVID-19 pandemic and the impacts of illness, fatalities and economic and social disruption from the period of emergency closures of public spaces through the present.
Amy Himelright, coordinator of mental health and academic counseling at Las Cruces Public Schools, said there were clear indications those conditions have worsened since, with high rates of students reporting emotional health problems, elevated anxiety and suicidality.
She said federal funding including COVID-19 relief money had been used to contract with providers and hire additional social workers at the state’s second-largest school district as well as train staff in assessing needs and directing students to services as needed.
988 crisis hotline
Two tools highlighted in the briefing were New Mexico’s new 988 crisis hotline for emotional or mental crisis including substance abuse, which debuted in July and ; and the establishment of health care center within school settings.
Gayle Porter, a licensed clinical supervisor for the 988 service, said call volume for the new service and the decade-old New Mexico Crisis and Access Line have been heavy.
“We’re there 24-7, 365 at the time when crisis happens,” she said in reference to the service’s round-the-clock response, “often the end of the night when distractions aren’t there, responsibilities aren’t there. We get the calls from people on Christmas when family is their triggering event. We’re happy to be able to provide support to people when they’re in that moment.”
The 988 service for mental wellness can be access by dialing 988 or visiting https://988nm.org. It is a resource for individuals worried about another person or who are themselves worried or in crisis involving substance abuse, emotional distress or in need of referrals for community services.
The service offers alternatives for anyone who is uncomfortable speaking directly to someone over the phone. Text messaging is available by texting “TALK” to 988, and an online chat service is available via https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/chat.
Presenters said that school-based health centers help cover gaps in available services in a state with insufficient healthcare providers (including mental health), some of whom do not accept Medicaid and where many residents must travel an hour or more for services, exacerbating inequities for lower-income residents.
Services at high schools
Representatives of La Clinica de Familia described medical and behavioral health services it provides at six high schools in the county within LCPS and the Gadsden Independent School District south of Las Cruces. The clinics offer safe settings for youth to access some acute or other medical care, behavioral health services, immunizations, examinations and referrals to other services right at school.
Presenters also discussed collaboratives 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 commitment to partner together to fill the gaps and needs for our children and our students.”
A current high school student who is a minor and her guardian shared personal experiences 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, went on to discuss collaborations through Doña Ana County Resilience Leaders, a project established in 2018 aiming to connect county residents to essential services, overcoming financial and other barriers and advocating for affordable housing.
In reply to a question from the invited audience, the senator pledged to encourage more support for programs giving children access to outdoor activities as a foundation of health.
Luján and Becerra spoke little during the event beyond introductions, but both men said long-standing stigmas about mental wellness and seeking care versus “toughing it out” need to change.
In his own working class family, Becerra recalled, “mental health was never something we thought about it. You just move forward,” adding that there were financial risks and barriers to seeking care even if it was available.
“It’s OK not to feel OK,” Luján said, adding: “It’s OK to say you’re not feeling well, you need to go talk to someone… We’re all going to do better because of that.”
Making reference to his recovery from a stroke he suffered early this year, the senator said he had learned “if you don’t feel well, you don’t try to sleep it off. You need to go see professionals and experts.”
Algernon D’Ammassa can be reached at 575-541-5451, firstname.lastname@example.org or @AlgernonWrites on Twitter.