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Trickle of COVID relief funds helps fill gaps in rural kids' mental health services

Christina Saint Louis, Kaiser Health News on

Published in News & Features

NELSONVILLE, Ohio — The Mary Hill Youth and Family Center’s building has long been at a crossroads overlooking this rural Appalachian city, but its purpose has evolved.

For 65 years, residents of Nelsonville and the rolling hills of southeastern Ohio traveled to the hilltop hospital seeking care. Then, in 2014, the 15-bed hospital, which was often without patients, closed.

Later, the three-story brick building reopened as a hub for health services. With the help of several funding sources, Integrated Services for Behavioral Health, a nonprofit social service agency, transformed the building into a site for mental health treatment, primary and dental care, and food pantry access.

In June, the organization opened a 16-bed residential mental health treatment program on the former hospital’s top floor. The program serves children in rural southeastern Ohio and gives families an option besides sending their kids far away — sometimes out of state — for residential care.

“For a long time, we’ve been trying to figure out, ‘How do we support services being delivered more locally?’” said Samantha Shafer, CEO of Integrated Services for Behavioral Health. “Because when you have the programs here, the work you can do with families is more successful, health outcomes are better.”

Efforts to offer residential mental health services at Mary Hill Center, and in other rural Ohio towns, were boosted, in part, by a tiny share of Ohio’s $5.4 billion allotment from the American Rescue Plan Act, a federal COVID-19 relief law that was passed in 2021.


Congress gave $350 billion to state, local and tribal governments as part of ARPA, allowing states to decide how they would use the funds. So far, dozens of states have allotted a relatively small portion to improving mental health resources. Ohio is one of a small group of states that further divided their allocation to spend a portion on children’s mental health care.

Experts said that using ARPA funds is just one way for states to support children’s behavioral health during what health professionals have called “a national emergency in child and adolescent mental health,” which was worsened by the pandemic. In an effort led by the American Academy of Pediatrics, multiple organizations wrote to the Biden administration in October, urging it to declare a federal national emergency over children’s mental health.

“At the time that ARPA came out, we were really trying to figure out, as a country, how the mental health, behavioral health systems could be bolstered, because, in my opinion, the systems are really broken,” said Isha Weerasinghe, a senior policy analyst at the Center for Law and Social Policy, a national, nonpartisan group that advocates for policies that help people with low incomes. “And what ARPA was able to do was to provide some foundational dollars to help bolster the systems.”

The center has said that ARPA’s funding provisions are “insufficient to counter deep systemic and historic inequities” in mental health care. Nonetheless, Weerasinghe said an opportunity exists for the money to have a long-term impact on children’s mental health care if applied to organizations that have demonstrated a commitment to maintaining children’s well-being in their communities.


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