Agoraphobic woman struggles to find treatment in rural Smokies


COSBY (WATE) – You may know someone who suffers from panic attacks, a type of anxiety disorder. A more severe condition is called “agoraphobia,” the fear of fear.

One of the biggest problems for people needing treatment for agoraphobia is having agoraphobia. How can you get help without leaving the house? It’s even more complicated when you live in a rural area, and you can’t get more remote than living near the North Carolina-Tennessee line at the edge of the mountains.

When Tammy McGaha steps out of her front door, she can’t go much further than her front yard. Like the mountains that surround her home in Cosby, her anxiety disorder – plus distance from professionals – shuts her off from getting the help she needs.

“I know I need therapy with the medications, but there are no resources out here to get the counseling that I need because I do need severe counseling,” said McGaha.

At 48 and a grandmother, McGaha is disabled. She has been able to get counseling through state paid assistance, but says its not consistent enough to help her get completely well.

“I’m taking these medicines, but I’m not getting the counseling that I need for the agoraphobia to get me back out here in the world,” she said.

McGaha was in the car when both yer younger sister and dad were killed in a crash in 1982. She says that life-changing event triggered what would eventually be diagnosed as her post-traumatic stress that leading to panic disorder that got worse as she got older.

“Agoraphobia is real. It’s not made up. I’ve been suffering from it for 25 years,” McGaha said.

Psychologist Dawn Fortich is the clinical director at Bearden Behavioral Health. She does not know McGaha, but says people like her with agoraphobia need therapy. She says it’s difficult to get.

“Accessibility is a major problem for folks in rural areas. Primarily because there aren’t enough health care providers in rural areas to meet all the folks who live there,” said Fortich.

For people like McGaha, teletherapy would be ideal. From her office, the therapist would have face to face contact with a patient from their home. Teletherapy is conducted over a secure encrypted network. By and large, insurance does not cover mental health teletherapy sessions in the state of Tennessee.

“At this moment, unfortunately, teletherapy services are a cash service,” Fortich said.

McGaha remains on a wait list for home treatment and hopes the progression of her disorder doesn’t get worse.

“It beats you up on the inside. You don’t have no hope,” she said.

As it stands, legislative efforts are being made so insurance does provide teletherapy for patients who can’t get to a psychologist’s office. The hold up is making sure the electronic infrastructure of providing counseling over the internet is secure and conforms to federal privacy regulations.

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