When IndyGo offered free bus rides in late June to celebrate the opening of its downtown transit center, Dr. Andy Chambers noticed.
Transportation is a challenge for patients the IU psychiatrist sees at a Midtown clinic specializing in treating addictions and mental health issues, and several of them were very excited about the cost savings and planned route improvements.
Chambers shares their enthusiasm, since he knows how hard it is for patients to get to their appointments, let alone hold down a job. Most of them don’t have a driver’s license for one reason or another, he said, and that lack of mobility makes recovery even more difficult.
“The lack of adequate public transportation is a huge barrier for mental health care,” he said. Although clinic staff tries to help by providing some bus vouchers, they can’t do enough to move the needle given the limitation of the existing system. “It’s not very practical. Someone who lives 10 miles away shouldn’t have to travel for four hours to get to me.”
Individuals undergoing behavioral health care treatment typically have frequent appointments—at least weekly, if not more often, Chambers said. Because of the nature of their illnesses, many aren’t able to work. Those without supportive families struggle to make ends meet. Legal issues also are common.
Reliable public transportation can help to address their myriad challenges—starting with helping them earn a living.
“Employment is part and parcel to mental health recovery,” Chambers said. Without a job, “how are they going to feed themselves?”
Although some of his patients use public transportation to get to the clinic on North Meridian Street, many do not. So they miss appointments and eventually discontinue treatment. Even those who do ride the bus find it difficult to coordinate their appointments with IndyGo’s schedule, he said.
“It’s just not reasonable,” Chambers said.
With a more robust transportation system, his patients and countless other carless individuals will gain critical mobility. And he said making it easier for people with mental health problems to get treatment is an advantage for the community as a whole.
“It benefits all if us across the economic spectrum,” he said. “We’re paying a huge public health price.”
Not having access to transportation is just a much of a challenge to patients as not having health insurance, Chambers said. It’s enough of a problem that transportation is now one of the standard questions for his new psychiatric charges.
“We have to think about treatment in light of our grossly inadequate public transportation,” he said.
He’s confident that reliable, efficient transportation would change his patients’ lives.
“I know we’d have patients showing up more often,” Chambers said. “And if that happens, we get better results.”
Chambers did his medical residency and behavioral neuroscience fellowship at Yale University’s medical school in New Haven, Connecticut. That’s where he saw how well public transit could function—for all kinds of riders.
Although he had a car, he often took the train from New Haven to New York City or Washington, D.C. Most of the Northeast is accessible by train, he said, and many larger cities also have their own convenient transportation networks.
“Transit is far better than taking a car,” Chambers said, citing the hassle of driving in an unfamiliar city and the expense of parking. “And in general, those cities [with transit] fare better economically … Mobility is crucial to economic advancement.”