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Reshaping the Mental and Behavioral Health Workforce

Reshaping the Mental and Behavioral Health Workforce

By: Van Ton-Quinlivan, CEO, Futuro Health

Mental Health Awareness Month arrives with a poignant reminder of the growing shortage of mental and behavioral health workers. This dearth not only affects the professionals themselves but casts a long shadow over patient care and community well-being.

I have spotlighted this critical issue in my past blogs, sharing strategies in behavioral health workforce development aimed at reducing stigma and enhancing access to mental health services. But too often these efforts face additional obstacles, particularly for behavioral health employers and workers in traditionally underserved, ethnically diverse, and rural communities.

A recent U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) study highlighted examples that in rural areas around the country, there is a shortage of licensed supervisors and internship positions needed to attract new workers. Additionally, behavioral health providers in rural communities often experience professional isolation, limited resources, and lengthy travel distances, exacerbating the need for more mental health workers, and making it challenging to deliver comprehensive care and support to patients in need.

Sharing our Best Practices

Futuro Health’s nonprofit mission is to improve the health and wealth of communities by growing the largest network of allied healthcare workers in the nation. We make education journeys into allied health careers possible by growing the talent that employers need and creating a path to opportunity that workers want. Our highly supportive education programs have enabled thousands of diverse Scholars to transition successfully into healthcare careers regardless of their educational background. The ethnic diversity of Futuro Health Scholars is now 90% and their linguistic diversity at 50% – with an average age of 31.

Our leadership team frequently shares our collective expertise and best practices in workforce development with renowned organizations like the World Health Organization, the National Governors Association (NGA), the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), and various national, public, and employer groups. These include the Connecticut Workforce Summit, the New Mexico Hospital Association, the Texas Workforce Commission, The Healthcare Management Academy, and more.

Last year, Futuro Health was invited to participate in the National Governors Association’s Healthcare Workforce Project, a learning collaborative to support governors’ offices across the country in implementing strategies to strengthen and grow the next generation of the healthcare workforce by exchanging ideas and sharing best practices from national, state, and local experts. At the kickoff session, I was invited to speak to senior state officials from 20 states including Colorado, Missouri, Utah, and Wyoming on a solutions framework for tackling workforce challenges.

And in conjunction with Mental Health Awareness month, I am looking forward to leading a panel discussion later in May on the mental and behavioral health workforce challenge at the California Workforce Association’s 2024 WORKCON: Bridging the Gap with fellow panelists Anthony Cordova and Rehman Attar, respectively, from the California Community Colleges and California State University systems to speak on new public funds as well as the creation of a brand new occupation, called Wellness Coaches (see Related Readings at the bottom of this blog), to fill the missing rungs of the mental and behavioral health workforce ladder.

The State of Mental Health: Wyoming and Beyond

Forbes Advisor recently released its 2024 list of The Worst States for Mental Health Care. One in five adults experience a mental health condition each year. Of those, according to Mental Health America, more than half (54.7%, which is an estimated 28 million people) do not receive any treatment and more than one in four individuals (28.2%) do not receive adequate treatment, due to issues related to access to mental health care, worker shortages, and excessive costs.

Considering this alarming data, states like Wyoming are taking measures to proactively reform their state’s mental health system, and increase access to care through innovative programs like Wy We Care, a collaboration between the three branches of Wyoming’s government, the private industry, and philanthropic partners.

In our partnership with the National Governors Association, I am pleased to share that Futuro Health has begun exciting work to assist the state of Wyoming map educational pathways to address the shortage of behavioral health workers with a focus on growing the certificated workforce and identify stackable credentials. This effort aims to bridge workforce gaps and includes outreach to providers in Health Professional Shortage Areas (HPSA). While Futuro Health focuses on the education pathways to bring Wyomingites to enter these roles to serve their citizens, the Governor’s Office concurrently considers policies related to reimbursement of services to ensure the sustainability of these roles.

Investing in Success

Funding is critical to support the development of comprehensive education and training programs for mental and behavioral health workers, ensuring they have the knowledge, skills, and competencies needed to provide effective care. Recently, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) announced $46.8 million in funding opportunities to bolster youth mental health, expand the behavioral health workforce, enhance access to culturally competent care nationwide, and strengthen peer recovery support.

Similarly, the California Department of Health Care Access and Information (HCAI), is investing over $15.6 million in scholarships to support behavioral health students across the state and $120 million to create new Wellness Coach (Levels I and II) roles, initially supported through grants but intended to be reimbursable in the outyears.

As chair of the HCAI California Healthcare Workforce Education and Training Council, I have observed a pattern that clinical work experience remains a recurring barrier to growing the needed workforce. Upon listening to public feedback, HCAI revised its requirement for Level l Wellness Coaches, reducing the mandatory clinical hours for this role from 400 to 150. Now, individuals can be hired on a probationary basis upon completing 150 hours, allowing them to continue building their competencies while being paid and accrue the remaining hours needed to get to 400 total hours. This small change will invite more inclusive participation since few people can afford to go unpaid.

All the above are part of a broader initiative to strengthen California’s mental and behavioral workforce and emphasize the importance of a comprehensive approach to investing in systematic approach for establishing and stacking credentialing to grow workers and facilitate their upward mobility. This not only attracts more individuals from diverse communities into the field but ensures they possess the essential skills to deliver high-quality mental and behavioral healthcare.

Even as these examples provide promising models to grow the workforce, sustainability comes when there is a reimbursement model in place for mental and behavioral health services.

As we observe Mental Health Awareness Month, let’s shine a light on the critical need for more mental and behavioral health workers. By addressing the workforce shortage, we can improve access to care and enhance the well-being of individuals and communities.

* Related Reading: California Introduces New Wellness Coach Program Aimed at Building a More Diverse Behavioral Health Workforce to Help Children and Youth

Futuro Health CEO Van Ton-Quinlivan is a nationally recognized expert in workforce development. Her distinguished career spans the private, public, and nonprofit sectors. She is a White House Champion of Change and California Steward Leader, and formerly served as Executive Vice Chancellor of the California Community Colleges.

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