Recognizing Mental Health Awareness Month: Meeting Our Workforce’s Needs

In the past few years, a bigger spotlight has shone on the importance of mental health as part of our overall health. In fact, a 2018 study by the National Council for Well-being found that most Americans (76%) believe mental health is just as important as physical health.

Despite this increased awareness, the study revealed that the overwhelming majority of Americans (74%) do not believe such services are accessible for everyone, and about half (47%) believe choices are limited. Accessibility and options are less for underserved communities and marginalized groups whose health disparities are often markedly worse. More than 150 million people live in federally designated mental health professional shortage areas.*

Culturally sensitive and competent care is as vital for mental health as it is for physical health. According to the American Psychological Association, in 2018, about 86 percent of psychologists in the U.S. workforce were white and about 14 percent were from other racial and ethnic groups, compared to 62 percent (white) and 38 percent (other races and ethnicities) for the country’s population.

Culturally competent training also means being aware of how someone’s own biases affect them and how best to interact with someone from different cultural backgrounds. Cultural differences can influence what treatments, coping mechanisms, and supports work for patients. Culturally competent mental health professionals need to be skilled in serving the needs of culturally different populations.

Similarly, mental health professionals need to recognize the role that trauma plays for those seeking care. A trauma-informed approach to care recognizes a complete picture of a patient’s life situation — past and present — to provide effective healthcare services. This means adopting core principles of safety, humility, trust, transparency, empowerment, and peer support.

More Education for Culturally Competent Care

In 2021, Massachusetts implemented the Roadmap for Behavioral Health Reform (BH Roadmap), a three-year strategic plan to address issues related to access to care and services, stigma, discrimination, and other challenges. ForHealth Consulting at UMass Chan Medical School collaborated with state agencies to create the BH Roadmap.

One of the BH Roadmap’s solutions for access to care was the establishment of Community Behavioral Health Centers (CBHCs), a new network of community-based clinics offering real-time and high-quality access to behavioral health treatment. To help train the mental health professionals who will staff these CBHCs, ForHealth Consulting developed and implemented the Behavioral Health Workforce Training Clearinghouse in collaboration with the Massachusetts Executive Office of Health and Human Services. This resource provides mental health professionals access to high-quality, evidence-based, standardized clinical training.

A major part of the Clearinghouse’s training offerings includes approaches to more trauma-informed, compassionate, and culturally competent care for providers and clinical staff. It’s important for these professionals to be trained in a culturally competent manner to help those from different cultures feel comfortable and understood—so they will return to and remain in treatment.

Included as one of the training courses in the Clearinghouse is “Addressing Racial Trauma: Increasing Awareness and Developing Strategies,” designed to provide participants with information on the impacts of racial trauma, ways to promote equity in therapeutic environments, and how to support healing in treatment.

Burnout Affecting the Workforce

By 2025, the U.S. will have 10,000 fewer mental health workers in this field than are needed, reports the Department of Health and Human Services. Contributing to this mental health professional shortage is an overwhelming sense of burnout, only exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Over 50 percent of behavioral health providers report experiencing symptoms of burnout, which will likely increase given the continued growth in the number of people seeking behavioral health care. Providing behavioral health treatment is challenging work and can take a toll on clinicians.

Compassion fatigue is a common effect for mental health professionals. With little time for breaks in between appointments, clinicians may not have time to “emotionally refuel and recuperate” after seeing a client. They can also experience emotional exhaustion from these interactions when compounded with challenges at home.

Burnout and compassion fatigue can manifest in a range of physical, mental, and emotional symptoms like mood changes, loss of concentration, or increased cynicism and lack of compassion—leading to a detrimental impact on these professionals’ own mental health.

To address the issues of burnout, the Clearinghouse offers a variety of courses on self-care for these clinicians. One such course is “Secondary Trauma and Self-Care,” where participants explore the impact of work-related trauma and identify helpful coping strategies. It is vitally important that mental health professionals assess themselves and their own level of burnout.

What the Clearinghouse brings to the table

So far, the Clearinghouse has trained more than 500 professionals from 25+ CBHCs and continues to work closely with CBHCs to understand what training is needed to be responsive to both patients’ and clinicians’ needs. As we recognize the importance of mental health this May, we should do our part to preserve and nurture the well-being and knowledge of our mental health professionals.

Education and training like that provided by the Clearinghouse can offer a number of benefits like helping prevent burnout, increasing awareness of trauma, and creating a more culturally competent mental health workforce. A happier, healthier workforce will provide better care and perhaps even encourage others to work in the field.

*Health professional shortage area designations are used to identify areas and population groups within the United States that are experiencing a shortage of health professionals. For mental health, the population to provider ratio must be at least 30,000 to 1 (20,000 to 1 if there are unusually high needs in the community).