Mental health: The nation needs help. Higher education can fix it.

An estimated 156 million Americans live in areas with limited access to a mental health professional.
Richard Senese
Richard Senese
Dr. Richard (Dick) Senese is the president of Capella University and a licensed psychologist.

While the nation commemorates mental health awareness month this May, too many Americans struggle to access critical care.

As of September 2022, the CDC Household Pulse Survey estimated roughly 31% of U.S. adults reported experiencing symptoms of depression or anxiety.  Yet, according to The Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA), an estimated 156 million Americans live in areas with limited access to mental health professionals. More than 7,500 workers are needed to fill this gap.

Two-thirds of these shortages are in rural or partially rural parts of the country.  A 2020 article published in the Journal of Clinical and Translational Science explains that adults residing in rural areas of the U.S. receive mental health treatment less frequently and often have providers with minimal specialized training compared to those living in metropolitan locations. This disparity is attributed to a lack of trained mental health providers and an “underutilization of available services.”

Growing up in Greater Minnesota in the 1960s and 1970s, I have experienced firsthand the stigma of mental health and the lack of accessible care due to limited services. It has impacted several generations of my family.

However, society has begun to recognize and accept the value of mental health care and the pervasiveness of mental illness. The nation commemorates mental health awareness in May. High-profile individuals, from Olympic athletes to CEOs, openly share their challenges. And recently, the Preventive Services Task Force recommended that children 8 to 18 years old be screened for anxiety.

Yet, despite its growing acceptance, the lack of adequate care in the U.S. persists. It has taken decades to recognize the value of mental health care and the impact of mental illness. Now, it’s time to address it.

As a nation, we are responsible for building our workforce to finally meet the need for mental health care in this country. On the heels of the “Great Resignation,” when many people are changing jobs to pursue their passion, we can help them find meaningful, new careers by creating accessible pathways.

By making a career more accessible and attainable, we will not only fill job vacancies and build a strong, committed mental health care workforce, but we will also help ensure everyone has access to quality care and treatment.

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Let’s design programs that meet the nation’s mental health needs, while adapting to student-worker needs

This can be done through designing affordable, flexible, and professionally relevant programs that can mold into the busy schedule of a working adult, who can train for a new career or job advancement while working.

There are several things higher education institutions could be doing now to help meet this need, including:

  • Developing flexible learning formats: Embrace direct assessment and competency-based education (CBE) to measure learner mastery of knowledge and skills, rather than seat time and allow students to use their work experience to help them progress through their coursework at their own pace. Specifically, offer direct assessment in professional preparation programs — a more progressive type of CBE that separates learning from seat time constraints.
  • Expanding online learning: Through the pandemic, health care – including behavioral health – was forced to embrace telehealth, which helped to expand access to patient care. The same is true for learning. Just as mental health providers see clients online, learners should be able to pursue a related career through accredited online learning and training programs.
  • Making training more accessible: Mental health professionals need more flexible options for hands-on learning and practice through practica and internships. Often insurance models can stand in the way of this by not reimbursing providers for work done by trainees during their practicum and internship. To help meet the growing demand, we need stronger partnerships among educators, training sites, and state licensing boards to ensure we are making training accessible.

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