Carroll University Tackles Mental Health Worker Shortage After COVID

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WAUKESHA – Over the past year, the coronavirus pandemic has put a lot of people on edge, but even as concern over COVID-19 is slowly easing, it leaves a residue of anxiety for many.

For some, it leads to a personal mental health crisis. And that problem could be compounded by another: the lack of licensed professionals to help people regain their sanity.

It is a problem that educators and professionals agree needs to be addressed.

A new educational program at Carroll University in Waukesha has started to tackle both sides of the problem, focusing on increasing the number of students in a field of work as the need for post-COVID care increases.

Carroll has launched his new Master of Science in Behavioral Health Psychology, a program “uniquely positioned” to prepare the next generation of clinicians and academics who will address today’s behavioral health issues.

“The need for highly trained mental health professionals in Wisconsin and beyond has never been greater,” said Jessica Lahner, director of the new program. “I am proud to be part of the team that is mobilizing to meet this challenge.”

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Answer to a need

Certainly, concerns about anticipated behavioral health needs predated the pandemic. Lahner said that the development of such a master’s program has been underway for more than a decade.

“For various reasons this has not materialized so far,” she said.

In a summary announcing the launch of the master’s program in April, university officials noted that before 2020, the Robert Wood Foundation and the University of Wisconsin’s Institute of Population Health ranked Wisconsin 32nd in the United States for the number of mental health professionals, 27th for licensed professional counselors and 30th for psychologists.

In essence, these numbers suggested that the state was generally lagging behind in a medical area, even during more normal times.

Then the coronavirus issues arose, and it raised a whole new level of emphasis on the lack of professionals providing the necessary services.

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“This, combined with the fact that Wisconsin lags behind other states in the number of mental health professionals and bright job prospects for behavioral / mental health professionals, is now making the mark. perfect time to deliver this program, ”Lahner said.

At the very least, introducing more professionals to deal with behavioral health will reduce the wait time for people who are close or already in crisis.

“The waiting lists at all levels of care are long,” she said. “It’s common to wait a month or more for a first visit with a counselor at this time. For many people, waiting more than 30 days to treat symptoms of depression and other problems is too long.”

Professionals already in the field recognize the mental health crisis and the shortage of qualified professionals are both real.

“The demand for mental health services has exceeded the available supply in most communities for some time,” said Kirk Yauchler, director of the clinical services division of the Waukesha County Department of Health and Human Services.

Yauchler said the demand for clinical therapy services, such as counseling, and psychiatric prescribing services is evident – even more on the prescribing side. The lack of professionals to compensate for this demand has forced general practitioners to fill the shortage.

“As a result, many primary care providers have to attempt to treat mental health issues on their own as they are unable to refer to psychiatric services,” he said.

The COVID factor

How is COVID-19 impacting the country’s mental health? It starts with anxiety caused by different effects of the pandemic and then builds up from there due to social isolation.

“The increase in negative mental health experiences and the reduction in mental health stigma are changes that I think are the most notable,” Lahner said. “The increases in depression, anxiety, substance use and suicidal thoughts in youth and adults over the past year are well documented.”

A June 11 report published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention claimed that the worst-case mental health crisis – suicides, or at least suicidal thoughts – has increased in the past year.

In the summary of its report, the CDC reaffirmed an earlier finding that in 2020, the proportion of mental health-related emergency room visits among adolescents aged 12 to 17 increased by 31% from 2019. The trend started in May 2020, when the pandemic was reaching critical levels across the country.

Now, more recent data suggests the problem was exponentially more pronounced for girls in this age group. A one-month sampling period cited by the CDC was February 21 to March 20, when emergency room visits for suspected suicide attempts were 50.6% higher than the same period in 2020 for older girls. from 12 to 17 years old. In comparison, emergency room visits for boys suspected of suicide have increased. 3.7%.

Of course, it’s not just teenage girls struggling. The mental health crisis is hitting parts of the population that were already struggling hard. COVID-19 has highlighted the disparities faced by ethnic minorities and “other disadvantaged populations,” Lahner said.

“A lot of people belong to more than one of these groups,” Lahner noted. “For example, a black woman who is a low-income essential worker is more likely to have contracted COVID-19 and lose someone to the virus. This person is currently at a much higher risk of mental health issues. than most other people. in a community. “

Part of Carroll’s training will focus on the specific challenges these groups face.

“Graduates of our program will have a deep understanding and appreciation for the disparate life experiences of Black, Hispanic, Latino and LGBTQ + clients,” she said. “They will understand the context of mental health issues experienced by their clients and the role systemic racism and chronic stress associated with discrimination and micro-aggression play, in addition to barriers to treatment. “

Regardless of the ethnicity of the patients, there is little doubt among professionals about the negative role the coronavirus has played in mental health and how it has added stress to the lack of clinicians who can help.

“There is no doubt that the pandemic has exacerbated this problem as more and more people are now grappling with mental health issues like depression and anxiety and seeking services,” Yauchler said. Fortunately, there are more options coming to the market like online telehealth services, but these still need clinical professionals to fill the positions. Any additional college program to train more health professionals mental would be welcome. “

Useful training

The new program, which began in April accepting students for the fall semester, “will provide opportunities to develop skills in evidence-based treatments through experiential learning in a variety of settings,” according to the ‘university.

“The program is designed for researchers as well as for practitioners, so it is likely to interest a variety of professionals as well as recent graduates starting their careers,” said Lahner.

This program supports Carroll’s current strategic plan, she added.

“This is a natural fit with the other health-related graduate programs offered by Carroll,” Lahner said. “Our undergraduate degree in Psychology is extremely strong and we are happy to provide a graduate study opportunity for those who wish to continue their education.”

Yauchler acknowledged that he had not been directly involved with Carroll’s program, but based on his past experiences, he supports the effort in general. Specifically, he said he sees a benefit in any program that combines medical and psychological training and gives primary care physicians some of the tools they need.

“One of the common applications of this field is the integration of mental health professionals into medical settings such as primary care clinics,” he said. “This supports medical providers who otherwise attempt to treat these conditions themselves and provides better and less stigmatizing access to consumers.”

Contact Jim Riccioli at (262) 446-6635 or [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter at @jariccioli.

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