Meadows Institute and Hope Center host panel exploring innovations in mental health workforce training
In 2023, the Texas Tribune reported that 98% of Texas’ 254 counties were wholly or partially designated as mental health professional shortage areas by the federal government, defined as more than 30,000 residents per clinician. This shortage affects all community mental health systems and compounds existing challenges to accessing care such as inadequate transportation, language barriers, insurance coverage, and long provider waitlists.
On September 7, 2023, the Meadows Institute and Hope Center at Temple University hosted a panel exploring innovative approaches different communities are taking to address the shortage. This event was part of a three-part Speaker Series hosted through the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board’s Student Success Acceleration Program. Moderators Tegan Henke (Meadows Institute) and Dr. Sara Abelson (Hope Center) hosted speakers Dayna Schertler, Senior Director of Student Health and Wellness, West Texas A&M University; Allexa Zwinck, Project Director of the Panhandle Partnership at Amarillo College; and Dr. Hani Talebi, Chief Clinical Officer and Senior Vice President for Health System Integration, Meadows Institute.
During the event, speakers discussed the challenges presented by the mental health personnel shortage, and explored innovative, systemic approaches communities are taking to bolster access to care in light of it. Highlights include connecting higher education institutions across communities to improve access to care, partnering with education institutions to build community clinics, and rethinking approaches to mental health workforce training.
Connecting Higher Education Institutions Across Communities
The Panhandle Partnership is a collaboration between four regional higher education institutions—Amarillo College, West Texas A&M University, Clarendon College, and Frank Phillips College. This region has historically lacked accessible mental health supports, due partially to its large geographic area. To address this, three regional community colleges and one four-year university partnered to launch a centrally located clinic that provides mental health services and social supports to students from all four institutions. In-person services are supplemented by telehealth supports for students who cannot access the clinic during service hours. This innovative approach allows participating institutions to utilize each other’s strengths, leverage combined resources, and offer a placement option for graduate students doing their internships or practicum while sharing the costs of supervision across the institutions. The clinic is one of many groundbreaking approaches that the four institutions are undertaking as part of this partnership to bolster mental health services and supports across their community.
Expanding Partnerships: Community Clinics
To support healing in the wake of the tragedy, local leaders in Uvalde and Hays County recently broke ground on what will become a behavioral health campus that offers behavioral health services in coordination with primary care; a center for college and job preparation training for students; resources for youth and families; and other support services. The behavioral health services offered will include a range of services and supports from traditional outpatient to crisis stabilization units, in which individuals in an acute mental health state can be safely observed and assessed. Given its proximity to two-year and four-year postsecondary institutions, there will be partnership opportunities that allow behavioral health training programs to offer internship experience for students seeking an associate, bachelors, or master’s degrees. This serves the dual purpose of increasing the number of providers able to deliver needed services and creating a local internship site where future providers gain valuable experience in the field. Importantly, it will be an additional resource for students requiring basic needs supports, including behavioral health services. It is important to note that, while The Uvalde Behavioral Health Campus was developed in response to tragedy, its potential to be replicated and sustained in other regions is promising. The Uvalde Behavioral Health Campus is expected to be completed in late 2024.
Innovations in Mental Health Workforce Training
All of these solutions leverage existing resources across communities, but the mental health personnel shortage requires innovative approaches to substantively address how we train and expand our workforce. Conducting early outreach to high school students and bolstering these efforts with mentorships, externships, internships, and scholarship dollars for pursuing careers in behavioral health can mitigate real-world barriers and provide strong incentives for students to enter the field. Evidence shows, for example, that scholarship programs can be more effective than loan repayment efforts because they remove early financial barriers to education.
Additionally, higher education institutions and licensing bodies should consider how to better meet students where they are to support them in identifying a suitable path to reach their identified aspirations for a meaningful career trajectory in the behavioral health workforce. For example, Master’s or Bachelor’s degrees may not be the right fit for all students. To address this gap, the Meadows Institute is collaborating with community colleges to develop curricula for various certifications to provide more accessible onramps into healthcare systems in positions such as Qualified Mental Health Professionals (QMHPs) or Behavioral Healthcare Managers (BHCMs). These roles would allow for QMHPs and BHCMs to actively work alongside frontline providers in directly treating and coordinating care for patients in healthcare systems, thus circumventing the lengthy and more expensive traditional means by which individuals enter healthcare service provision. These early career certifications can also provide a foundation that optimizes the likelihood of students furthering their education in the field should they choose to continue their higher education. These curricula are tailored to each community college’s unique student body and regional demographics, to ultimately support building a workforce that meets community need and offers a path for placement following certification.
Student Services Strategies for Navigating the Shortage
While these approaches offer potential for longer-term interventions, the panel also supplemented the discussion around innovation and systemic changes with more narrowly focused strategies that postsecondary counseling centers and student services are using today and that can be replicated to implement mental health supports on campus during a mental health personnel shortage. Examples include engaging peers on campus, investing in mental health promotion, and more.