Addressing Behavioral Health Needs in New Mexico

In recent decades, our country's understanding of behavioral health has grown significantly. New approaches and therapies, such as Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), have emerged and evolved — offering hope for those in need. Most recently, the COVID-19 pandemic has opened the dialogue and increased our collective awareness of the importance of mental health.

Today, mental health is a prominent topic in the media, reflecting a societal shift in how we think and talk about our own lives. Yet, we are also coming to recognize that our awareness of behavioral health needs far outstrips the funding and resources that are available.

In New Mexico, behavioral health challenges have been particularly significant. Our state has a complex history of colonialism, conquest, and historical trauma, which continue to affect at-risk communities. Additionally, we have experienced other difficulties, such as last year's devastating wildfire season that resulted in the destruction of homes and displacement of thousands of residents.

The need for local behavioral health resources is clear. Yet, despite this strong demand, New Mexicans face a shortage of providers and lengthy waitlists at community behavioral health agencies.

One person who knows this challenge well is Apryl Miller, LCSW. Apryl is the executive director of The Sky Center/NM Suicide Intervention Project, an Santa Fe Community Foundation grantee on Santa Fe’s south side that works to prevent youth suicide through family therapy services. “We’re currently scheduling 100 young people and their families per week for free family counseling,” says Miller — an increase of 33% since the pandemic began. “We’re seeing more hopelessness among young people.” 

Miller links these trends to several factors like the social isolation, fear, and “collective trauma” that characterized much of the pandemic.

“I think we’re a little too close to [the pandemic] to see the true impact,” reflects Miller. “Kids are spending lots more time on social media and basing their sense of 'Who am I?' on the number of ‘likes’ they have. We also see families who are tired and often overworked. While they want to connect, they sometimes find themselves buried in screens and having a difficult time relating with one another.”

To thrive, children and families need more connection, trust, and safety. “The strength of our relationships is essential to kids’ well-being,” says Miller. That’s why The Sky Center offers a range of programs and resources that help young people connect — with each other, with caring adults, with their schools and community, and with the healing power of the natural world. For example, the Natural Helpers program is up and running in eight different schools across Santa Fe Public Schools. (For teens, a great place to start exploring these resources is

Despite the challenges, Miller remains optimistic:

“What most people are suffering from is not a flaw in themselves. It’s issues in our cultures about how you belong, how you feel connected. We all need a more hopeful vision of what we’re capable of, individually and together. In the end, there’s no line between us and them — they are our family. Where there is help, there’s always hope,” says Miller.

Miller’s views find echoes in the work of Taylor Janis, LCSW, a clinical supervisor and therapist at Las Cumbres Community Services, another Santa Fe Community Foundation grantee. For more than 50 years, the organization has provided a wide range of socio-emotional and behavioral health-focused programs and services to communities across the region. In some cases, the agency has worked with families for multiple generations, offering tailored support to grandparents, parents, caregivers, and children. 

“I sometimes hear people talk about a kid being ‘bad’ — but in my experience doing this work, I don’t believe that’s ever accurate. When a child is struggling or behaving badly, it’s a response to trauma and/or to struggling systems around that child, such as family, school, community, and even culture. I believe that the most effective therapy for children understands this and works collaboratively with these systems, primarily with the family system, to help parents and children regulate their emotions, connect with one another more effectively, and create safe, secure, supportive spaces where children can thrive,” says Janis.

Miller and Janis’ observations reflect a larger shift in how behavioral health services are conceived and delivered. 

For decades in the middle of the twentieth century, Western therapeutic models centered on the individual client and sought to help clients adjust to their personal circumstances. 

More recently, the behavioral health community has become more conscious that healing is not necessarily the work of individuals alone. A range of family systems models and other modalities recognize that individuals live within much larger networks of relationships — with other people, social systems, and the natural world itself. Healing cannot always be divorced from our relationships with these larger systems. (Santa Fe local Joshua Michael Schrei recently made this point forcefully on his podcast, The Emerald and the episode has been attracting attention from psychologists and psychiatrists around the world.)

This shift in perspective among the behavioral health community fits nicely with the Santa Fe Community Foundation’s own view of change and well-being, which has long been rooted in the health of families, neighborhoods, and communities. And within the pool of funds available for our community grants program, fully half goes to health and human services, of which behavioral health forms a significant part.

Last year, two of our Piñon Awards, which recognize excellence in our local nonprofit sector, went to behavioral health agencies (The Sky Center and Gerard’s House). And given the challenges of the last several years, perhaps it is unsurprising that we continue to see record numbers of new applications from organizations focused on delivering quality behavioral health services for substance use, domestic violence, and other challenges.

In order to help facilitate this work, we’re thinking carefully about how to support the staff who deliver key behavioral health services. Many organizations are reporting challenges with staff retention, and we recognize that manageable caseloads, living wages, wellness days, staff retreats, and other tools are crucial to ensuring that qualified staff feel valued, respected, and cared for - and so they can continue serving their fellow northern New Mexicans.

May 17, 2023
News & Stories

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