Invest in clinicians to solve mental health care crisis

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Tuesday, May 14, 2024 | 2 a.m.

The need for mental health care services in Nevada has never been greater than it is now. This trend is reflected across the nation, but a detrimental lack of access to services puts Nevada in a particularly difficult position.

According to a UNLV study, Nevada ranks 51st in the nation in meeting the state’s overall mental health needs. Another study by Mental Health America ranks it 49th for access to adult mental health care. Nevada has the second-lowest mental health workforce availability in the Mountain West region, with only one professional for every 460 people.

Particularly concerning is the state’s youth mental health care need, where Nevada ranks ninth-highest in the prevalence of mental illness and lowest in access to care nationwide. Seventy-two percent of youths with depression aged 12 to 17 did not receive any form of mental health care in the past year, a critical gap in services.

The first milestone in addressing this issue is simple: we need more qualified mental health clinicians. Achieving that milestone, however, is much more complicated.

Becoming an independently licensed clinician requires a master’s degree and several additional years of on-the-job clinical training and oversight. The cost of that degree and license is significant, especially considering the earning potential of the field, and many mental health clinicians graduate with substantial student loan debt.

The burden of education costs also disproportionately affects clinicians from marginalized communities, particularly communities of color, yet these are some of the most needed clinicians in the field. Our communities are diverse, and they are best served by clinicians who intimately understand the needs of those communities. Financial assistance such as scholarships, grants and loan forgiveness programs need to be targeted toward people from underserved communities in order to create greater access to culturally relevant treatment.

Once past the obstacle of student debt, mental health clinicians still face the issue of creating a sustainable livelihood. Many mental health facilities are understaffed and over-scheduled, all while clinicians are chronically undercompensated. This reality not only keeps more professionals from entering the field, but also limits the efficacy of the services a clinician can provide. How can someone deliver quality mental health care when they themselves are struggling to meet their own needs?

Both in the private and public sectors, reimbursement for mental health services needs to be improved. If we truly believe that these services are worthwhile, then a serious financial investment needs to be made. If a career in mental health care is truly valuable, then prospective professionals need to see that an investment of their time, money and energy will lead to a healthy and sustainable living.

Efforts to bring more clinicians to the field are already being made, such as the BeHERE Nevada program, housed within UNLV’s Kerkorian School of Medicine. This program aims to increase the behavioral health workforce by promoting mental health careers among K-12 students and connecting graduates with employment opportunities in Nevada.

While beneficial, this still leaves the issue of the cost of education and licensure. There has been some discussion on a legislative level, but there is still much action needed from state leaders. A 2023 legislative bill, Assembly Bill 69, is meant to increase loan forgiveness opportunities for mental health professionals, but there has been no movement on the bill in over a year.

In good news, the state recently allocated roughly $39 million toward mental health and social services, a wonderful investment in increasing access to care. That said, none of those funding efforts address the challenges facing clinicians themselves. Without addressing the obstacles to entering and remaining in the field, there will continue to be a shortage of professionals capable of delivering these services.

The drastic need for mental health care in Nevada cannot be met without the efforts of a robust and capable clinical workforce. If we are serious about addressing these needs, then we must invest in the people with boots on the ground doing this vital work.

Scholarships, loan forgiveness programs and grants can attract talented individuals, while increased reimbursement and improved working conditions will retain dedicated clinicians. An investment in our clinicians is truly an investment in our community as a whole.

Nick Norman, LICSW, is a clinical social worker and the business relationship manager at Mindful Therapy Group, a diverse and collaborative network of licensed, independent mental health clinicians serving Nevada, Washington, Oregon, Arizona and Colorado.