CLARKSBURG, W.Va. (WV News) — Behavioral health provider shortages persist across the nation, and West Virginia is no exception.
The Health Resources and Services Administration has designated 106 mental health professional shortage areas in West Virginia, and a Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration report claims West Virginia has 40% of the number of psychiatrists, 43% of psychologists and 14% of counselors to meet national standards.
“The shortage of behavioral health workforce can result in longer wait times for appointments and waitlists for some specialty services. Providers have maximized services with available personnel (existing and new hires) but a consistent consequence of workforce availability is the inability or limited ability to redistribute duties with staff turnover, which adds challenges to maintaining services and affects access,” said Jessica Holstein, assistant director of communications for the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Services.
According to Mark Drennan, chief executive officer of the West Virginia Behavioral Healthcare Providers Association, not enough people are choosing to go into the behavioral health care profession. The association and the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission have been working to try to increase the number of people in the pipeline, he said.
“One of the reasons that we think that people have not chosen this field is because it’s traditionally been grossly underfunded. The demand is certainly out there and its great, and we also have a shortage of workers. ... That affects the number of services that people can get and how readily available they are,” he said.
Wage compression is another issue as, because of shortages, direct care staff are making more than counselors in many cases, leading to some positive developments like the establishment of certified community behavioral health clinics.
Drennan said behavioral health is seeing much more investment and attention than it has in the past.
Federal grant funding to the DHHR’s Bureau for Public Health has increased in recent years, according to Holstein.
“BBH has been very aggressive in seeking federal funding, resulting in a 1,200% increase in federal discretionary funding to the Bureau between 2018 and 2022, primarily through grants funded by SAMHSA. However, more resources are needed to sustain an adequate workforce and build specialized services within communities,” she said.
Work continues in the state to address shortages in schools.
For example, the need for school counselors is particularly profound in Harrison County, where there is one counselor for every 348 students, one school psychologist for every 1,440 students, and one social worker for every 10,086 students, according to a West Virginia University news release.
To help address this issue, the WVU College of Applied Human Sciences’ School of Counseling and Well-Being will roll out a new program starting aimed at placing more counselors in West Virginia schools, and it will begin in Harrison County.
Under the program, six advanced counseling program graduate students from WVU will be placed in Harrison County schools each year of the project. These students will work in school system during their studies and for two years after graduation as part of a built-in service obligation, according to the news release.
“West Virginia is among the nation’s leaders in adverse childhood experiences,” Rawn Boulden, assistant professor and project lead, said in the WVU news release. “Add a global pandemic, pervasive racial tensions and other challenges to youth mental health, and you’ve just kicked an already existing mental health crisis into the next gear. We’re currently seeing elevated rates of kids reporting suicidal thoughts, depression and anxiety, and feelings of loneliness. Nearly half of all high school students report feeling sad more than half the time and youth hospitalization rates have skyrocketed.”
Project leaders are also working to train 625 personnel in 20 West Virginia public schools in Youth Mental Health First Aid.
To help connect West Virginians with available mental health services, the DHHR established a 24-hour call line at 844-HELP4WV in 2015. The service provides help for all behavioral health needs, including substance use disorder. The line is also the access point for the Children’s Crisis and Referral Line for the state’s children’s mental health assessment pathway and community services, including West Virginia Wraparound services and the Children with Serious Emotional Disorder Waiver.
In addition, the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline offers a direct connection to compassionate, accessible care and support for anyone experiencing mental health-related distress.
“Both of these lines ensure there is always someone to talk to 24/7/365,” Holstein said.