NC State’s Department of Social Work is pioneering a new workforce program designed to address the shortage of mental health professionals, particularly those who serve young people, in rural North Carolina.

The federal Health Resources and Service Administration awarded the program a three-year, $1.1 million grant to help connect graduate students to underserved young people ages 16 to 25.

“The United States has a shortage of people who can provide mental health and addiction treatment services to young adults – particularly in rural areas,” said Jodi Hall, assistant professor and director of field education in the Department of Social Work at NC State and principal investigator of the research.

The grant’s research study will explore the effectiveness of the enrichment program. Investigators will follow the scholars over time and observe how effective the intensive training was in their ability to secure employment and continue to work in integrated-care settings.   

The Department of Social Work created the Behavioral Health Scholars Education and Training initiative to address this problem. The program is centered on integrating mental and physical health care, Hall said.

The BSHET initiative is open to students in the final year of their master’s in social work degrees who express an interest in working in an integrated care setting after graduation. The scholars are awarded a $10,000 stipend for their work in the program. 

This year, there are 18 behavior health scholars in the program, and additional spots will added each year as the program progresses. Next year, 30 positions will be available. 

Karen Bullock, a professor and head of the Department of Social Work and co-investigator of the research, said because social work encompasses the largest field of mental health service providers, the program will seek to train social workers to be mental health providers. 

“We anticipate over the next five years to see a significant amount of mental health providers retiring, so we are preparing for that workforce shortage,” Bullock said. “As individuals are retiring, there will be a need for qualified graduates to replace those who are.”

To prepare for the workforce, the scholars participate in a higher level of contact hours and receive intensive, high-impact clinical training in addition to more training in evidence-based interviewing skills.

Scholars in the program are placed in practicum sites across the state. Clinical placements include WakeMed Hospital, Holly Hill Hospital, Duke University Medical Center, the UNC hospital system and the NC State Counseling Center, among others.

The clinical placements provide an experience similar to a medical residency. Graduate students will function as practitioners. They will be responsible for completing assessments, making referrals and providing clinical intervention, according to Bullock.

During the clinical placement, students receive a caseload of clients while they are also spending time in the classroom learning about the different theories, methods, approaches and competencies. For 20 to 24 hours a week, the students in the placements are applying what they learned in the classroom to reality, face-to-face with the patients, according to Bullock. 

Pam Wheeler, a lecturer and the grant manager, said the initiative will seek to fill the financial and service gap in rural communities that don’t have proper coverage.

Wheeler said the grant will help add mental health providers for children, adolescents and young adults to hopefully treat and cure problems while the patients are still young.

“We think that initiatives like this one can help to promote mental health, behavior health and substance abuse treatment and intervention,” Bullock said. “People are very comfortable with attending to their physical health, but not so much their mental health, and not so much substance abuse.”

The program seeks to access people in a variety of different racial, ethnic and gender groups to find evidence-based practice approaches for diverse populations, Bullock said. 

“We don’t want a one-mode-fits-all in terms of how we access and work with individuals,” Bullock said.

Intervention and prevention are both critical parts of the mental health process and are both important areas the program will focus on, according to Bullock.  

“If you can get to people early enough before they have shown signs of impairment you can intervene in effective ways so that a person will possibly not progress toward impairment,” Bullock said. “Oftentimes, we overlook prevention and go right to intervention, but if we focus more on health promotion and prevention, there are things we can do to ward off some of these tragedies.”