May 3, 2022

The number of adults with mental illness is rising nationwide and Washington is no exception. Yet nearly 25% of adults with mental health problems have reported they could not access care. The pandemic only exacerbated the situation, particularly among low-income communities and communities of color, where emergency room visits, homeless encampments and incarcerations are on the uptick.  

The UW School of Social Work’s groundbreaking approach aims to increase the number, diversity and preparedness of graduates who commit to careers in a behavioral health system which has struggled to meet the complex needs of people and families who require services, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic and in communities of color. Known as the Washington State Behavioral Health Workforce Development Initiative (WDI), the program was funded in 2021 by a $24.8 million gift from Ballmer Group, and developed and led by the School of Social Work. 

Students at 13 participating universities who are enrolled in social work or mental health counseling masters-degree programs will receive two-year scholarships for serving three years in community-based behavioral health agencies and tribal health centers after they graduate. These agencies serve high proportions of individuals and families who face poverty and are challenged by severe long-term mental health or substance abuse. 

“This is an extraordinary moment for behavioral health in Washington, and there is good reason for optimism despite the complexity of the work ahead,” said Eddie Uehara, Ballmer Endowed Dean in Social Work. “The initiative will expand the diversity and numbers of well-prepared, debt-relieved social work and mental health practitioners throughout the state and will serve as a model for collaboration between higher education, communities, philanthropy and the public sector.” 

The program also provides access to mentorship and career guidance to ensure that students get the best fit and make the right choices for their future employment.  

WDI is an innovative approach in a field where staff turnover rates can exceed 60% a year in certain locations. “Although there are a number of existing programs using publicly funded conditional grants as a mechanism to recruit staff in high-need areas, I know of no other privately funded scholarship program in behavioral health that is as comprehensive in scope and as generous in its support as WDI,” said Benjamin de Haan, School of Social Work’s associate dean for social service innovation and partnerships. “Private funding also holds great promise to attract public financing once impact is proven.” 

WDI’s first cohort—a “quick start” group of 20 graduate-level students—began in September 2021 and will graduate this June. This fall, 50 new students will begin the program. Success will be achieved, said de Haan, “when we are preparing at least 415 students to complete their academic programs and attain employment within two months of graduation.”  

Edward Pospisil, a social work graduate student at Eastern Washington University and WDI participant, was surprised by the overwhelming need for behavioral health practitioners. “I was unaware of the severity of the mental health profession shortage in our state,” said Pospisil. “This was an incentive for me to pursue my degree. I’ve also become increasingly aware of how many moving parts there are in our health care system. The value I see with WDI is that I will be exposed to more professionals and more wisdom.” 

Building stronger relationships between community behavioral health agencies and participating universities is vital to growing WDI’s recruitment efforts. “There are more than 100 comprehensive behavioral health agencies in the state with which we are working,” said Margaret Spearmon, WDI’s director of career counseling and community agency engagement. “I’ve been talking with agencies whose employees have bachelor’s degrees but realize that an MSW will improve their skills and lead to future promotions. We are just beginning this process to reach out to agencies to share this opportunity with their employees.”  

Kaya Welch, a graduate student at Antioch University Seattle and part of the WDI current fast-track cohort, values the alignment between the initiative and her personal and professional goals. “WDI gives me the opportunity to get experience in diverse settings, such as crisis interventions and outreach, working with families, substance use and acute mental illness,” she said. “This range of experience is crucial for a clinician and will set me up for increased professional success in the future.” 

The robust partnership approach is a program hallmark. “Our program partners are coming together in unique ways to benefit the students and serve the most vulnerable among us,” says Vaughnetta Barton, WDI deputy project director. “This includes agencies that are Medicaid-reimbursed, specifically those treating individuals with mental health issues or substance use disorders.”   

The program’s career support network is a key component to professional development. Students have access to a range of resources, including advice from recent graduates or professionals in the field, job readiness checklists, career self-assessment tools and professional career counseling. “The connections and support are wonderful,” said Pospisil. “And without worrying about financial obligations, I feel that my mind is clearer, allowing me to focus on how I can best develop as a professional.”  

As the first cohort of WDI students move into their post-graduation commitments, their career trajectories will be tracked and data gathered to show proof-of-concept that the program is doing what it was designed to do. “WDI graduates will be better prepared to manage some very difficult assignments in the community,” said Uehara, “allowing us to better address our state’s behavioral health needs, and provide ongoing care and support to some of the state’s most underserved populations.”