There is a severe shortage of mental health workers, and UTHealth Houston has a $10.5 million solution.

The University of Texas Health Sciences Center opened a new public psychiatric hospital in March across from the Harris County Psychiatric Center, just east of Texas 288,
to relieve the state’s overburdened mental health system by adding more beds.

But building the hospital was the easy part. The real challenge was finding workers to staff it.

Now, UTHealth Houston wants to tackle a decades-long shortage of mental health workers by launching a new school of behavioral health sciences that would offer diploma and certificate programs for psychiatric technicians, community health workers and licensed chemical dependency counsellors. The health system requests $10.5 million a year from the Texas Legislature to establish the school, expand the curriculum, recruit faculty and staff, complete credentialing processes, and cover other expenses.

The school would initially enroll 80 students across all disciplines, but enrollment would be increased or reduced based on funding, according to the proposal. UTHealth is still determining a location for the school on the UTHealth Houston campus.

“We’ve built a brand new hospital and all of a sudden we’re faced with the challenge of being tasked with staffing it,” said Stephen Glazier, vice president of business development and government relations for UTHealth Houston Behavioral Sciences. “It made all of us realize that all of a sudden we had to hire hundreds of new employees at the same time.”

The shortage of mental health workers has worsened since the pandemic. Demand for services has jumped nearly 50% since 2017, according to the US Department of Health and Human Serviceswhile burnout among overworked mental health workers has driven more people out of the field.

Texas would need 77,000 social workers licensed to do therapy and 33,000 clinical psychologists to meet demand, according to an analysis by UTHealth.

Since opening the new psychiatric hospital, called the John S. Dunn Behavioral Sciences Center, UT Health has only been able to staff about a third of the 264 beds. UTHealth officials told a legislative hearing on Tuesday that they aim to open all beds by 2023.

Not single

The problem is not unique to Dunn. Public hospitals have 2,400 beds, but 700 cannot be used because there are not enough staff to staff them. Community clinics, hospitals and other providers say part of the problem is that colleges, master’s programs and medical schools are simply not training enough mental health workers.

These shortages are particularly pronounced in rural areas, especially those along state borders, according to the State Health Services Department 2014 Report. There was one clinical psychologist for 40,000 people in non-border metropolitan areas, compared to one for 123,000 people in border towns.

“The more numbers we can create, the more opportunities you have to fill some of these hard-to-fill positions,” Glazier said. “As we set up training programs, offering clinical training rotations in some of these areas really opens a lot of students’ minds to a place where they might never have worked.”

These shortages become particularly noticeable after tragedies, said Jana Eubank, executive director of the Texas Association of Community Health Centers, a member association of federally qualified health centers, which provides primary care, mental health and other types of care at low cost to unprotected populations. insured and underinsured.

Eubank was in contact with Community Health Development, a community health center in Uvalde near Robb Elementary, the site of one of the nation’s deadliest shootings. At the time, the center had only two licensed social workers doing telehealth visits.

“We were able to get volunteers to send staff for 12 weeks while we worked very hard to recruit permanent health providers,” Eubank said. “It’s been a struggle.”

Eubank and Glazier said the legislature should explore incentives such as loan forgiveness programs and tuition reimbursement for mental health professionals who work in underserved areas.

Very different

However, the lack of mental health workers is not just a problem in rural communities. At the Lone Star Circle of Care, a community health clinic with 27 locations in six counties, including Harris County. More than a quarter of its 51 budgeted positions for mental health workers are unfilled, said Dr. Renee Valdez, director of psychiatry and behavioral health.

Valdez said turnover is typical at clinics, but in the past they’ve been able to find new people to fill vacancies. But not recently.

“I’ve been leading the behavioral health department for nine years and this is the first time I haven’t seen us making up for the positions we’re losing,” Valdez said. “People always leave because of babies or life changes, but this is very different.”

With the growing demand for mental health workers, competition between employers is fierce, said Jon Calvin, executive director of Lone Star Circle of Care. Not only does Lone Star compete with other clinics, but also with telehealth startups that have emerged during the pandemic.

Global funding for mental health tech startups hit $5.5 billion in 2021, up 139% from $2.3 billion in 2020, according to a report. business information company CB Insights. About 68% of 2021 deals were early-stage, pointing to more growth in the mental health tech space.

Online startups may be able to offer more competitive salaries because they don’t have the overhead of maintaining facilities, medical equipment, or providing other services beyond the Mental Health.

Andrea Caracostis, CEO of Hope Clinic, a federally qualified health center headquartered in an Asian city, has a steady stream of patients working with counselors at her clinics in Houston.

Anxiety and grief

Prior to the pandemic, the clinic worked with many patients with PTSD as many of its patients are refugees fleeing war, persecution and crisis in Africa, the Middle East, South America and Central America. Now they see more people seeking support for anxiety and grief.

“It’s the aftermath of COVID, people lost their jobs or their life partners because of COVID,” Caracostis said. “There are a lot of side effects of the virus that no one is talking about, which are going to weigh on our healthcare system for a long time.”

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