Tornado Survivors Receive New Mental Health Services from MU

Survivors of the deadliest and most destructive tornado in recent history now have access to new mental health services provided by the University of Missouri. The services are being offered by MU’s School of Medicine to help heal traumatized residents as they rebuild the city of Joplin.

The tornado that struck southwest Missouri on May 22 killed more than 150 people, caused billions of dollars in damage, and dramatically affected many survivors’ ability to emotionally cope with the devastation. Joplin’s only community mental health care center had difficulty accommodating an increase in patients who had either developed mental health problems or lost access to clinicians as a result of the destruction.

“These patients are from all walks of life and all ages. Many of them never had mental health problems or had their problems under control before the tornado,” said John Lauriello, MD, chair of MU’s Department of Psychiatry. “When we learned they needed psychiatric services in Joplin, we knew it was our responsibility as Missouri’s flagship university to step up and help.”

More than 15 MU physicians are providing mental health services by using the medical school’s telehealth network. The network’s telecommunications technology allows MU psychiatrists to interact with patients and clinicians who are more than 200 miles away at Ozark Center, Joplin’s only community mental health care facility.

“We launched this service in July to give MU psychiatrists the ability to have real-time, secure and confidential interactions with patients at Ozark Center, which installed its telehealth equipment six months ago,” said Rachel Mutrux, director of the Missouri Telehealth Network. “The network’s videoconferencing capabilities allow users to observe facial expressions and other physical movements, which helps psychiatrists diagnose and treat patients much as they would during face-to-face meetings.”

The tornado has caused anxiety, depression and other mental health problems in patients who have lost loved ones, homes and jobs. MU psychiatrists anticipate treating approximately 20 patients each week through MU’s new telehealth connection with Ozark Center.

In the meantime, Missouri officials like Joe Parks, MD, are seeking government funding to support the new mental health service. As chief clinical officer for the Missouri Department of Mental Health, Parks helped establish the new partnership between MU and Ozark Center in Joplin.

“MU has a long history of providing psychiatry services to community mental health centers in the rural areas of Missouri,” Parks said. “The Missouri Department of Mental Health appreciates the willingness and speed with which Dr. Lauriello and his colleagues at MU were able to deliver these essential services following the tragic disaster in Joplin.”

MU and its community mental health center partners throughout Missouri average 1,500 patient encounters each month via telehealth. MU’s telehealth network has provided psychiatry services since 2001.

Calls to Joplin’s mental health crisis hotline have increased significantly since the tornado. Between May 22 and July 6, the hotline received 1,752 calls, compared to 371 calls in the month of April, according to Ozark Center. Joplin residents who need mental health services may contact the center 24 hours a day, seven days a week at (417) 347-7070, (417) 347-7720 and (800) 247-0661.