$1.2 Million Grant to Make Access to Mental Health Care Easier for Rural Alabamians
The Bristol-Myers Squibb Foundation recently gave a $1.2 million grant to improve life in Alabama’s Black Belt region—a band of counties, largely rural, with high rates of poverty, economic stagnation and inadequate health care.
Governor Bob Riley of Alabama accepts the Bristol-Myers Squibb Foundation’s grant of $1.2 million to aid mental illness treatment in the Black Belt. Foundation Director Patricia Doykos looks on.
The Black Belt was named for a strip of dark fertile soil in the Old South, stretching from Mississippi across Alabama into Georgia. The land once supported large antebellum cotton plantations worked primarily by slaves. More recently, the area has come to symbolize historic significance as the home of civil rights activist Rosa Parks, Joe “The Brown Bomber” Louis—one of the greatest prize fighters of all time—and jazz musician Nat “King” Cole. It is also home to Harper Lee, and inspired her American classic novel on race relations, To Kill a Mockingbird.
Poverty, one of the highest levels within the United States, is now what links the counties within the Black Belt. With little money to pay for proper health care and limited health care resources and services available, Black Belt residents have a life expectancy of 73 years, which is seven years less than the national average, according to the 2005 Census. The Bristol-Myers Squibb Foundation awarded the grant in December, payable over two years, to reduce mental health care disparities within the region by creating better local health care support services.
The foundation is working with Alabama Governor Bob Riley, who leads the Black Belt Action Commission.
“There has long been a need for increases in mental health treatment and care in the Black Belt,” Riley says. “The prevalence of mental illness in rural communities is the same as it is in urban areas, but patients in rural areas are usually diagnosed later and therefore require more intensive services.”
The grant will assist in narrowing the difference between mental health care in urban versus rural areas. Riley describes the disparities as “a gap we can’t live with.” “Thankfully,” he says. “Bristol-Myers Squibb has stepped up and said we want to help fill in the gaps.”
The grant will support several organizations in their work to decrease the misunderstanding and stigma of mental illness, as well as support those people suffering from it. “We’re going to take this money and we’re going to set up programs that will allow us to do a better job than we’ve ever done before,” Riley said.
Patricia Doykos, director of the Bristol-Myers Squibb Foundation, says, “Our grant to Alabama’s Black Belt continues our commitment to help patients prevail over serious diseases. The programs initiated and aided by the grant are already seeing much success.”
For example, the West Alabama Mental Health Center has used the money to furbish and equip a mobile mental health van, staffed by professionals who provide behavioral and primary health care to patients in several counties. The center also bought tele-medicine equipment to give remote rural patients tele access to doctors, says Kelley Parris-Barnes, executive director of the center.
“By acquiring this equipment, not only will the quality of care increase, but more doctors will be attracted to work and stay in the area,” she says. “The tele-medicine equipment will increase access to psychiatrists in both routine and crisis situations.”
National Alliance on Mental Illness Alabama, a statewide support group for family members of people with mental illness, will use some of the grant to expand its outreach. The development of family support groups in the West Alabama and Cahaba regions, where none currently exist, will educate caregivers and help them to provide support to relatives suffering and in recovery from mental illness.
The alliance will also fund a training program for community leaders and pastors on how to reduce the stigma often associated with mental illness. “These are persons with the greatest potential to be catalysts of a change in attitude and perception of mental health issues in the Black Belt region,” Parris-Barnes says.
In addition, the Community Care Network of Alabama will expand the reach of their mobile primary care units to Wilcox County and health fairs to provide free screenings for physical and mental health needs and to lend a hand in the recruitment of medical professionals to the area.
From left: LaShandra Prince, a therapist from the West Alabama Mental Health Center, works with a rural medicine student from the University of Alabama in the mobile unit.
On the most basic level, the community needs more access to physicians, says Thaddeus Ulzen, M.D., chairman of the department of psychiatry and behavioral medicine at Alabama’s medical school in Tuscaloosa. In particular, “the Black Belt has a dire need for access to psychiatric health care and treatment,” he adds. To achieve this, Ulzen aims to recruit several doctors to the Black Belt region by exposing them to the needs and the impact they can have during their residency training.
“The plan is, if we’re able to get two people a year to train in public health and psychiatry, we hope they will stay, because there is a dire need for public rural psychiatry,” he says. “You’re able to keep people if they train in an area.”
The $1.2 million grant, given over a two-year period, will also be used to build better connections between mental health offices and services that currently exist. For those patients who have moved from one county to another, an improvement will be made in the transference of medical records between mental health offices. These efforts, as well as many others within the Black Belt communities, will enhance partnerships and help more mental health patients obtain the health services they need.
"Many of our pharmaceutical companies have made a difference in the lives of so many people, not only in Alabama but across the country," says Governor Riley. "But I think this grant points out what happens when you take a specific area of the state and say we’re going to do everything that we can to make life and access to medical care, mental and physical, easier. When we make that a priority it’s amazing what we can do.”