MU graduate student program improves health care in rural Missouri

Health psychology professor Laura Schopp: “We can treat the whole person. We don’t have care fractured off into silos.”
Rural agricultural land located outside of Hallsville, Missouri. Hallsville is a small city located north of Columbia with a total population of about 1,500 people.

Many rural counties with populations less than 10,000 often only have one or two health facilities and may not include mental health care, according a medical facilities map published by the Missouri Department of Health & Senior Services. But with a federal grant, a new graduate psychology program aims to change that.

MU professors of health psychology Brick Johnstone and Laura Schopp launched a new program in July that pairs graduate-level psychologists with rural clinicians to establish more comprehensive health care.

The goal of the program is to train general clinicians who typically do not specialize in behavioral health services.

The program received a $700,000 grant from the Health Resources and Services Administration and supports five students’ internships for three years.

“Our department provided services to almost 1,500 people, and over three-quarters of them were from medically underserved areas,” Schopp said of last year. “So that tells us that there’s a need for comprehensive health care services among the patients we serve and that these services are very rarely available in rural areas.”

The program focuses on partnering with state agencies such as the Missouri Division of Vocational Rehabilitation, Harry S. Truman Memorial Veterans’ Hospital and Missouri Department of Mental Health.

Schopp said that psychological or behavioral issues often interfere with general health care.

“If [a rural clinician] has a patient that has diabetes and the patient is depressed, we are treating the depression so that they can take care of their diabetes,” Schopp said.

Some of the factors that commonly inhibit the care for physical issues in rural areas are anxiety, depression, chronic pain and adjusting to new disability.

The Missouri Department of Mental Health has also prioritized Community Mental Health Centers, which enable patients with severe mental illnesses such as bipolar disorder or schizophrenia to receive their full health care in the same place.

“We can treat the whole person,” Schopp said. “We don’t have care fractured off into silos.”

This type of integration also saves money on Medicaid significantly. According to a Missouri Coalition for Community Behavioral Healthcare study from 2012, integrated care could save over $30 million. As a result, HRSA has been especially interested in programs that combine mental and physical health care.

Clinical psychology student Isaac Hunt became one of the interns to participate in the program after transferring from Brigham Young University in order to finish his doctorate.

Hunt said his work so far has primarily been with patients who have head injuries, strokes, Alzheimer’s and other issues with the brain. He chose this program because it also gave him the opportunity to sit in on autopsies and brain cuttings.

He said that the program “has a pretty good focus on rehab psychology and working with individuals in an inpatient setting.”

The interns will rotate among partnered locations.

“Right now I am doing an adult neuropsychology rotation,” Hunt said. “Later on I will do a geropsychology rotation; that’s working with the elderly. At the VA, I’m going over there for didactic training where they will bring a speaker to present different topics once a week.”

The program currently does not have an official name yet and is being called the HRSA Rural Psychology Program. The program is receiving additional assistance from MU faculty members Eric Hart, Renee Stucky and Nikole Cronk.

“The program has been really good for me,” Hunt said. “It has been a good training experience so far, and I’m looking forward to the rest of the year.”

Edited by Claire Mitzel |

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