People have easier access to mental-health services with a new website’s soft launch this week by several local health professionals.
The online directory Mental Health Network of Walla Walla had a quiet opening Wednesday night at the Baker Center on the Whitman College campus. Local providers were able to register a free account, including profiles and information about services, location, specialty, insurance and other details.
More than 20 providers already have listed their profiles, according to the website, which is still in progress. Organizers said they hope to have the site complete in late January 2020 with an official launch.
The website has been underway for several months, according to providers who created the site.
It was made possible by a sub-grant from a three-year $800,000 grant in late 2017 from the Andrew S. Mellon Foundation to the college supporting community engagement, according to Thomas Armstrong, directory co-founder and Whitman College assistant professor of psychology.
The college’s Community Engaged Learning and Research Initiative gave directory founders about $15,000 for web design, promotional events and stipends, he said.
The directory is meant to help people “find help faster,” founders wrote in a letter to area healthcare workers, inviting them to the soft launch.
“Our aim is for local behavioral health providers to be able to showcase their services through searchable profiles … to bypass the existing convoluted system and identify the appropriate provider or service to meet their needs in a much more efficient manner.”
Residents haven’t had adequate care access, according to website founders, including Nikki Sharp, healthy communities manager for the Walla Walla County Department of Community Health.
“I’ve had this dream of making sure Walla Walla had a list of mental health care providers,” Sharp said.
“A lot of therapists weren’t being represented,” she said referring to various online lists where providers must pay to post their profiles.
Another concern Sharp had was how long it took for people to get mental healthcare in rural communities, including Walla Walla.
She said it typically took folks awhile to even ask for help, and when they worked up the courage to do so, they were overwhelmed with how difficult it was to navigate through the maze of providers and insurance companies.
For example, the delay could cause those with issues to relapse in their addiction or commit suicide, she said.
One person dies by suicide every eight hours in the state, and Walla Walla’s suicide rate is 7% higher than the state average, according Reach Out Walla Walla’s website.
A 2017 survey of almost 2,000 Walla Walla County residents by the Walla Walla County Suicide Prevention Work Group indicated 77% knew about 911 and the National Suicide Hotline but had “less knowledge of local resources.”
Armstrong said the provider website began after he invited Emily Rea, directory co-founder and clinical psychologist at Walla Walla Clinic, to speak at an information session for graduate students in the fall of 2018. When he picked her brain about how psychology students could engage the community, she told him about Sharp’s idea of a comprehensive directory.
But the website didn’t really get going until spring, he said, when he, Sharp, Rea, and two Whitman undergraduate psychology students, Zoe Brown and Daniel Leong, came up with a plan and developed the application for the sub-grant.
Walla Walla Web Weavers were brought on board to help create the technical side, he said, but ended up donating web hosting and giving a discounted rate, paid by stipends through the grant. And photographer James Lamperti donated the site’s cover photo, Armstrong said.
The site went live over the summer with about 10 providers, but now has around 25. The site isn’t fully ready, but Armstrong said he hopes to triple provider listings and thought there were about 50-70 local mental-health care providers in the county.
He also reached out to Tri-Cities and Spokane professionals to see if they were interested. But the site was focusing on Walla Walla County and easing patient-provider connections, he said.
To help with the process, the network provides any mental-health care provider’s profile, including a photo when available, along with which insurance companies they accept.
People can search for providers using those guidelines, as well as patient age, issue, format (group, families, etc.), specialties, and treatment style (faith-based, etc.). If people are uncertain about the type of therapy they may need, a glossary lists many common treatments.
The glossary was one aspect Brown and Leong developed, Brown said.
“It’s been a really great experience to find out what’s happening in the community that’s different than what we learn in the classroom,” Brown said.
The 20-year-old added that she and Leong “have done quite a bit of reaching out to different providers,” which helped them direct their work paths. She also said the experience made her change her career goal from research to opening a practice, perhaps in a rural community, although it was still early.
“There’s a strong possibility,” she said.