Colorado doesn’t have enough mental health workers to meet demand. Here’s what’s being done to fix that.

UCHealth gave a tour of the new behavioral health unit at the University of Colorado Hospital on June 14, 2023 in Aurora, Colorado. This room is an intake exam room on the unit to assist patients in a mental health crisis. (Photo by RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post)

Colorado’s demand for people working in the mental health and addictions fields more than doubled during the pandemic, but the supply of real workers has not kept up, a situation that state agencies, higher education and systems health are trying to solve.

The number of openings for behavioral health jobs in the state increased 152% from 2019 to 2022, and projections show that number could increase another 30% from 2023 to 2030, said Lisa Weinberg, director of workforce development for the Administration. Colorado Behavioral Health.

In Colorado, as in the rest of the country, mental health worsened during the pandemic, with some public officials calling the situation a “crisis.”

In February 2023, about 30% of Colorado adults Reported symptoms of possible anxiety disorders or depression., which was slightly lower than the national average. The most recent data on young people is from 2021, when 40% of high school students reported symptoms that could indicate depression. Not everyone who reported some symptoms needs treatment.

Hiring people to work in those mental health roles is a challenge for all providers, said Laura Patke, executive director of behavioral health at Kaiser Permanente Colorado. The Colorado Health Access Survey found that the main reason people reported that they did not receive necessary mental health care in 2023 was that appointments were not available.

“We are seeing that the current supply of providers, therapists… is not being maintained,” he said.

To close the access gap, the state not only needs to train more professionals, but also prevent them from burning out and leaving the field, and encourage them to serve where people need them, Weinberg said.

“Increasing the number of professionals does not always correlate with accessibility,” he said.

State agencies and other organizations are trying different approaches aimed at bringing more people into the process and fixing places where they tend to leak, including a Youth Mental Health Corps and financial aid to help new counselors and social workers get their licenses. .

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Some Front Range high schools offer an elective that teaches mental health first aid and could be a first step on the path to a career in that field, Weinberg said. The agency hopes more rural schools will agree to offer the elective, which could encourage young people to consider working in behavioral health in their hometowns, he said.

Colorado community colleges also worked with the state to create a credential so adult students can begin working in behavioral health as soon as possible, while continuing to study for more advanced roles, Weinberg said. These “microcredentials” that students can earn in one year, will allow them to gain front-line experience and determine if the mental health field is right for them as quickly as possible, he said.

“We want to try to take them to the next level,” he said.

Young people helping young people, starting careers

Youth in Colorado’s first Youth Mental Health Corps, part of the AmeriCorps volunteer program, start by earning one of the micro-credentials and become “qualified behavioral health assistants.”

The first members of the corps are scheduled to begin work in Colorado in September. The plan was for the first cohort to include 50 people, but the group may be larger because more people showed up than organizers expected.

Once they have completed their training, youth corps members will work in high schools, discussing issues with students who have routine mental health needs and suggesting resources for those who need professional help.

The only requirements are that corps members must be adults under the age of 25 with permission to work in the United States and a high school diploma or GED. Typically, people join AmeriCorps during gap years before or after college.

The corps will help students now by giving them someone of a similar age to talk to, said Lt. Gov. Dianne Primavera, whose office oversees the AmeriCorps program in Colorado. But it will also help young people interested in the mental health field by giving them experience and a credential they can use, she said.

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“We have long understood that there is a mental health crisis in Colorado, especially among young people,” he said. “Peer (counseling) can be very powerful.”

Corps members are not required to be Colorado residents, but the hope is that both local and out-of-state members will decide to stay.

The program not only allows young people to gain hands-on experience in behavioral health, but also gives them a path into clinical roles, said John Kelly, executive director of the lieutenant governor’s office. If they decide to continue in the mental health field, they could use their AmeriCorps scholarships to pursue other microcredentials or a degree, he said.

“This is a great entry-level credential,” Kelly said.

Help with the license “paywall”

Sometimes, aspiring mental health workers manage to finish their studies, only to be derailed before they can get licensed.

The number of new licenses that states grant to work in behavioral health fields each year is less than half the number of students who completed master’s degrees that would allow them to obtain a license in those fields, said Emily Matuszewicz, director of the University Metropolitan State Health Institute of Denver.

Some students probably did not intend to obtain a clinical license, but others are deterred by financial barriers and the time it takes to complete proctoring and pass the exam, he said.

“It’s financial, it’s time, it’s having access to resources,” Matuszewicz said.

Last week, MSU Denver and Kaiser Permanente Colorado announced a partnership to help new graduates obtain the 100 hours of professional supervision they need to be eligible for a Colorado license in fields such as counseling. MSU Denver is helping place licensure candidates in jobs where they can gain clinical experience and perform peer support activities, while Kaiser Permanente is providing about $4.2 million for stipends and to cover costs for supervisors.

MSU Denver estimated that it costs about $10,000 to supervise a candidate in licensed professional counseling, licensed marriage and family therapy, or licensed clinical social work. If a licensure candidate’s employer does not provide that supervision, the candidate has to pay an outside vendor to supervise her work, Matuszewicz said. For many, that kind of spending isn’t feasible, particularly because jobs open to people with a master’s degree but no license don’t pay especially well, he said.

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The collaboration set a goal of getting 87 candidates who had completed their master’s degree and 36 who had a bachelor’s degree through the licensing process, which takes approximately two years.

Anyone who has completed the necessary education can apply, although they particularly encourage people of color and other underrepresented groups in the mental health workforce, Matuszewicz said.

“If we don’t have enough providers in the field and providers that reflect the communities that have the most needs, we’re not going to solve the problem,” he said.

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