ALBUQUERQUE — New Mexico’s mental health system is troubled by a shortage of professionals, inadequate information about services and a bad call in 2013, experts said Wednesday.
A conference titled “Transforming Behavioral Health in New Mexico” at Isleta Resort & Casino addressed those and other issues facing mental health care in this state. About 100 people attended the opening sessions of the two-day conference and more observed online. The conference is put on by New Mexico First, a nonprofit public policy group.
One topic that came up repeatedly involved the importance of peer support and peer counselors — people who have been through mental health and substance abuse challenges and with whom patients might identify. Some at the conference said these individuals can play a role in filling the shortage of mental health practitioners.
But in some cases, their experiences, such as encounters with the law, can impede their ability to help, some said.
Nikka Peralta, a panelist at the conference, said four DWI stops and two domestic relations cases against her didn’t prevent her from launching an Albuquerque firm, Mending Hearts, which provides mental health services to clients.
But she said her record has created bureaucratic hurdles in getting where she is and still tangles her effort to win the state government’s approval to become a “comprehensive community support service.” That kind of service coaches people struggling with vocational, parenting and life skills.
“I want to be like somebody’s safe place,” Peralta said in an interview. She has been sober for more than 10 years, but still “you hit all these walls, like boom, boom, boom.
“When is enough time long enough” to get past that, she asked. “Where is the pinhole of light?”
Dr. Mauricio Tohen, a panelist and the chairman of psychiatry at University of New Mexico’s Health Sciences Department, said society needs to train more people who have been through battles and can help others.
“Peer support is key,” Tohen said.
Marshall Martinez, executive director of Equality New Mexico, said the LGBTQ community has difficulty finding mental health services, especially in rural New Mexico, adding it’s also hard to find therapists who are Indigenous, queer or Black.
Martinez said that as a peer, “my expertise is that I’ve lived it.”
People with conventional credentials may be hard to find in New Mexico and elsewhere. A 28-page report for the conference said the state faces “severe shortages in the number of professionals available” for mental health treatment.
“Shortages are significantly more prevalent in rural and frontier counties, but even the larger cities in the state do not have enough workers and facilities to meet the need,” the report said.
The document noted 70 of 76 of the state’s child and adolescent psychiatrists are found in four counties, and 25 counties have no such services.
And the need is great. The paper said New Mexico has the second-highest suicide rate in the country.
Among children 15 to 17, suicide and unintentional injuries are the leading causes of death. It also said a state report for 2021 shows New Mexico has had the highest alcohol-related death rate in the country for about 25 years.
The struggle to find available mental health practitioners is daily and often frustrating, said Mariela Ruiz-Angel, director of Albuquerque Community Safety Department.
“Right now, you call left and right,” she said.
“People are basically just going to the internet and seeing what they can drum up off of Google,” Peralta said, describing a scenario in which those in need call practitioners, leave a message when no one answers, then fail to get a return call.
“Why would somebody want to reach out for help again?” Peralta asked.
The report for the conference also described the 2013 behavioral health debacle that stemmed from the state Human Services Department’s decision to freeze Medicaid money to
15 mental health agencies. The reason involved “credible allegations of fraud,” the department argued, but all 15 were later cleared by the state Attorney General’s Office, according to the report.
“Many of these agencies were forced to close, and hundreds of people lost jobs,” the report said. “Several of those agencies never reopened.”
Speakers said programs such as the 988 national mental health hotline coming online next month is a plus. So are some programs in communities around the state.
Albuquerque Community Safety Department sends behavioral health responders to certain emergency calls instead of police officers. San Juan County has created a mental health resource center for community awareness and information on mental health services.
Santa Fe CONNECT is a network of people in clinics, local government programs and community organizations striving to link people in need to mental health services.