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Mental health worker shortage continues as pandemic-related mental health crisis is 'just gearing up'

A nurse writes notes on a pad of paper.

A study for a drug addiction and parenthood support program was supposed to start at OU months ago, but difficulties hiring case managers have caused delays. It’s not just OU and it’s not just case managers - a shortage of mental and behavioral health workers is affecting the whole state.

A five-year study to test the efficacy of the University of Washington-based Parent Child Assistance Program was scheduled to begin at OU last summer.

Katy Fortune-Reagan, a case manager supervisor for OU’s PCAP study, said a vital part of the program is the contact between clients and their case managers.

“With PCAP, there comes this really essential piece of care coordination. So, it's not just referring to services and then getting reports back from the service providers,” Fortune-Reagan said. “It's referring to services, but then also ensuring that each service provider knows what other service providers those clients are working with and that everyone is on the same page.” 

The study needs six case managers split between its two sites in Oklahoma City and Tulsa. Right now, only three case managers have been hired. Fortune-Reagan said this is partly due to confusion about eligibility for the role.

“Many times when someone sees a case management role, they think, ‘Oh, I have to be a certified case manager.’ For our program, you do not have to because we aren’t administering clinical services,” Fortune-Reagan said.

But the issue of staffing shortage goes beyond PCAP and beyond case managers. Healthy Minds Policy Initiative Executive Director Zack Stoycoff described the combination of increased need for mental health services and decreased number of mental health workers that has led to difficulties in the mental health field across the state.

“At some point during the pandemic, about half of Oklahomans experienced some form of diagnosable mental health condition, whether that's anxiety or depression or something else. That's one in two of us. So the need for therapy and other forms of mental health treatment are really through the roof at record historical levels right now,” Stoycoff said. “At the same time, we have the same size provider workforce that we've always had.”

At NorthCare, a mental health provider based in Oklahoma City, filling positions that require a mental health background has been a struggle for years. Vice President of Marketing and Business Lisa Buck said the pandemic made it even more difficult.

“We've had such a huge increase in anxiety, depression, and addiction issues that the need and the demand for mental health has really skyrocketed on us,” Buck said. “And what was already a tight market has become a critical market for us to try to recruit people to come and work for us.”

And in addition to an increased need for mental health services in the general public, Buck said the trauma of the pandemic has left mental health workers in need of mental health care of their own.

“Our staff is struggling to find mental health support, and those frontline nurses are struggling to find mental health support and that they need doctors as well, too,” Buck said. “It's just important that we recognize the demands have not stopped just because there's less death and less hospitalizations associated with the pandemic. I think that the mental health crisis associated with the pandemic is just gearing up.” 

At a time when the need for mental and behavioral health services is so high, Stoycoff said low pay contributes to staff shortages.

“The sad reality of it is you often can make more money working at Target than you can being a behavioral health case manager or a mental health tech. And it's an easier job,” Stoycoff said. “We need people who really want to make a difference and we need people who are willing to take the pay that the market is currently offering for those positions.”

At the same time, Buck said a lack of college graduates with mental and behavioral health backgrounds adds to the problem.

“I think that what we've got to do as a state is to look at the workforce infrastructure and how we can feed more people into these lines of work,” Buck said. 

Despite the ongoing struggle to find mental health workers, Fortune-Reagan said PCAP is making progress with the case workers they do have.

“There is quite a lot of training you have to go through before you can take clients. And we’re working on that right now,” Fortune-Reagan said.

PCAP at OU now hopes to begin taking clients by March 1.

Hannah France started her work in public radio at KBIA while studying journalism at the University of Missouri. While there, she helped develop and produce a weekly community call-in show, for which she and her colleagues won a Gracie Award. Hannah takes interest in a wide variety of news topics, which serves her well as a reporter and producer for KGOU.
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