The UW School of Social Work is growing the skills, diversity and number of Washington state's behavioral health workers in three critical areas: public and tribal schools, community mental health centers and crisis response services.

The School of Social Work originated a new behavioral health workforce development model to reduce worker shortages, increase diversity and improve workforce skills. This innovative model provides generous scholarships to students seeking careers in behavioral health in exchange for their commitment to work in community-based mental health agencies serving high-need and tribal populations. 

Based on this model, Ballmer Group made a substantial gift in 2021 to fund a three-year statewide effort called the Washington State Behavioral Health Workforce Development Initiative or WDI. In total, the initiative placed 140 highly skilled graduates in community-based behavioral health agencies across the state while strengthening knowledge-sharing between the participating universities and local agencies. The conditional scholarships also made it possible for students from diverse backgrounds to graduate with little or no debt.

The Washington state legislature recognized the pilot program's real and measurable impact and in 2024 enacted a new law that creates the Washington Health Corps Behavioral Health Scholarship Program, which offers conditional scholarships for students seeking careers in community-based mental health.

The legislative action fulfills a long-sought goal of the School's behavioral health effort to establish a permanent publicly funded mechanism that guarantees a pipeline of highly skilled professionals in behavioral health. "We are using philanthropic gifts and grants to develop pilot programs that we can test, measure and evaluate,” says Michael Spencer, professor and dean of the UW School of Social Work. “This strategic approach makes it possible to scale successful programs and secure public funding for the greatest reach and impact in our state.”