October 29, 2021

The UW School of Social Work is applying an ambitious, multi-level approach to addressing the serious shortage of graduate-level clinicians in Washington’s community-based behavioral health agency (CBHA) system—practitioners who are the backbone of that crucial system. 

Nearly 25% of adults with mental illness in our state reported they cannot access care—a situation dramatically exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and mostly affecting low-income communities of color who depend more heavily on publicly funded services. 

The School’s new approach aims to increase the number, diversity and preparedness of graduates who commit to careers in a system that has struggled to meet the complex needs of people and families who need behavioral health services, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic and particularly in communities of color. 

The School’s Washington State Behavioral Health Workforce Development Initiative, funded by an historic $24.8 million gift from Ballmer Group, will create a debt-free or greatly debt-reduced pathway for more than 400 graduate students in Washington state over the next five years. The initiative will also address other key system challenges to attracting and retaining a capable, committed and diverse workforce.

The initiative will award generous two-year grants to students in accredited graduate-level social work and counseling programs at 13 participating universities in the state. Students, in return, will serve for three years, post-graduation, in one of the 119 CBHAs or tribal health centers that provide publicly funded comprehensive mental health and substance use services.

The initiative will support educational innovation and closer collaboration among participating social work and counseling programs, as well as stronger alignment between the programs and CBHAs. The “education-field” alignment is especially important for addressing the system-identified need for enhanced recruitment, increased support for field supervision, career counseling, mentoring and career placement services. 

Significantly, participating MSW and counseling programs and CBHAs are located throughout the state, enabling students to study and eventually work in the communities of their choice, including places where they already have deep roots.

“This is an extraordinary moment for behavioral health in Washington, and there is good reason for optimism despite the complexity of the work ahead,” says Eddie Uehara, Ballmer Endowed Dean in Social Work at the UW. 

The Ballmer Group gift to the School is part of a set of gifts the organization has recently made to the UW, totaling $38 million, to support a broad, collaborative response to the state’s behavioral health needs. It comes in the context of significant investment in the behavioral health system by the state legislature and philanthropies to support other UW-led workforce innovations, as well as complementary efforts to advocate for increases in Medicaid reimbursement rates for community-based behavioral health. 

“Leaders across the state have realized that we all have a stake in the equity and efficacy of Washington’s behavioral health system and the excellence of its workforce,” adds Dean Uehara. “We are all committed to reaching the same goal: providing dignifying, effective care that empowers and lifts the quality of life of the people the system was designed to serve. Ballmer Group’s generous gift will assist hundreds of graduate students throughout the state and serve as a model for collaboration between higher education, communities, philanthropy and the public sector.”