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Mental health workers needed as shortage impacts access to care

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Posted at 7:40 PM, Jun 28, 2022
and last updated 2022-07-08 09:58:46-04

LEXINGTON, Ky. (LEX 18) — It's been a little over a month since Tyran Price walked across the stage with his master's in social work and he is already diving into his career, amidst a shortage of workers in the mental health industry.

"It just felt surreal," said Price. "Especially because I couldn't walk undergrad because that's when COVID hit, and they sent everybody home. So, it was just like a really beautiful experience."

Price just started his first week as a mental health clinician with the Trauma-Informed Counseling Center in Lexington.

Although the worker shortage isn't what motivated him to enter the field, he is grateful that he's able to help fill the gap.

"I was definitely needed in any capacity and especially the Lexington," said Price.

He says there weren't a lot of males in his graduating class and even fewer Black males.

"Every day I just would go, 'okay, I could change one person's especially, someone that looks like me, just one person.' I'm not trying to end world hunger, but you know, if I can really just, one teen at a time then it really will mean something to me. That's something that just always motivated me since I was a kid," said Price.

What's Happening?

The federal government keeps track of health professional shortage areas and estimates that 166 practitioners are needed in Kentucky right now. Further revealing how critical the need for workers is in the state.

With retirees, and people leaving due to other work stressors, Dr. Candace Hargons, associate professor in the Counseling Psychology program at the University of Kentucky says more people are needed to make sure people get the access to the care they need.

"There's so much turnover right now, among mental health professionals, because many of us feel burnt out," said Hargons.

What's Next?

As a professor and mentor, she's constantly working to recruit more people because she knows how important it is.

"I'm always recruiting. I'm always thinking about how I diversify our field," said Hargons.

In her office, there's a wall of students' pictures. They are students she's encouraged who have chosen to become a mental health practitioners or enter the industry in some capacity.

"Here are all of the psychologists that I'm training or have trained," said Hargons as she pointed to the wall. "People with diverse racial identities and sexual identities and all of these identities that are usually underrepresented in therapy, so that when folks go to see a therapist, they get to see someone who looks like them."

Hargons says efforts to recruit are in dire mode because that shortage is impacting access to care.

Nina Eisner, CEO of The Ridge Behavioral Health System, says they have experienced challenges with staffing and are also trying to find ways to get more people interested in mental health careers, especially while they're young.

"I think that if we made that more accessible and really introduced the career path for them, there would be more individuals coming into the workforce," said Eisner.

The Ridge has professionals ready to help 24/7, serving the community for over 35 years.

They offer a full continuum of services ranging from inpatient acute care, partial hospitalization, intensive outpatient services, and sober living.

They're also offering school-based services at certain locations, which they hope to expand in the fall.

Without the staff community, mental health centers, and hospitals need, clients and potential clients could see a waitlist and may not be treated in the time they need it.

With the need for care increasing over the past few years, Eisner says it's important to acknowledge and make others aware of the consequences of untreated mental health issues.

According to Mental Health America's 2022 report, 56% of Americans with a mental illness do not get treatment.

"Access is a critical issue and being able to address these problems in a timely way. In other words, the time to act is a critical element," said Eisner.

One of the biggest demographics not receiving care is the Black community. Hargons says various factors play into this, including cultural stigma.

"There are some cultural norms around where you're supposed to get help and where you're not supposed to get help. So, for those of us who identify as religious it might be, you know, you take that to Jesus, or you take that to the pastor as opposed to taking it to a mental health professional," said Hargons.

Getting creative with who can help solve the issue, Hargons and a group of colleges who specialize in mental health and research, created The Neighborhood Healers Project to utilize community members to bring more information and mental health access to Black Lexingtonians.

"I was like, we have some really great people here, who could be the pathway or the link to adequate and even exceptional mental health in our community," said Hargons.

Already the 20 neighborhood healers have spoken with more than 400 Black community members.

With around 44,000 Black people in Lexington, and only 7% have seeking mental health care, their goal is to increase those numbers in 5 years.

"We're the medicine. So, when folks ask what our community needs and what we can do, I see us as our best thing," said Hargons.

When waitlists are long or people get turned away from residential treatment or don't know where to go, they tend to turn to emergency rooms.

Eisner says admissions to ERs for mental health crises have increased by 24%.

"And most emergency rooms don't have a secure psychiatric room, if you will, to keep patients safe while they're waiting," said Eisner.

She says all the local mental health agencies have been working together to move people where they need to be and will have the greatest access to care. That includes constant communication with hospitals.

"I think that collaborating across the spectrum of hospitals and health systems is incumbent upon us now because, for example, if The Ridge doesn't have a bed for a child, then I need to be able to send that child somewhere else," said Eisner.

She feels like they must always find a way to help.

"I call that taking serious medicine closer to home," said Eisner.

While she focuses on staffing, she's also focusing on transportation barriers hindering access to care and access to care for those battling substance abuse.

Recruitment

Recruitment efforts have been challenged by average salary and most jobs requiring a post-graduate degree, deciding for some not financially feasible.

According to the website Payscale, entry-level social workers make around $41,809 while entry-level mental health professionals make $40,914.

Average salaries will vary based on company and experience level.

Funding

"Over the past 70 years, we've seen a huge decrease in the amount of federal funding that goes to mental health, but now we're seeing an increase again, with so much community violence and some of the outcomes of the pandemic people are seeing the need for mental health. So funding is going in that direction," said Hargons.

Two years ago, Congress passed legislation to create a new federal mental health hotline called "988". The implementation was left up to the states. It rolls out in July. The government just added an additional $150 million for implementation.

A bipartisan gun bill passed in late June and signed into law added $370 million for community mental health initiatives, $80 million to support telehealth for pediatricians, and $1 billion to build up mental health staffing in schools.

At the state level, Kentucky invested $7.4 million in the latest budget to fund additional school-based mental health services provider positions on a reimbursement basis for 2022.

They're investing $3.4 million in the fiscal year 2023 and $9.4 million in 2024 for increased staffing at community mental health centers across the state.