November 22, 2022

From Seattle to Walla Walla, Ellensburg to Spokane, a new statewide UW School of Social Work-led initiative focused on workforce development in behavioral health is making a measurable impact on students—and on the profession. 

As part of the Washington State Behavioral Health Workforce Development Initiative (WDI), students at 13 universities throughout the state who are enrolled in social work, mental health, or family-and-marriage therapy masters-degree programs can receive two-year scholarships for serving three years in community-based behavioral health agencies and tribal health centers after they graduate. The School of Social Work developed the initiative, which was made possible in 2021 by a $24.8 million gift from Ballmer Group. 

In Washington state, nearly 25% of adults with mental health and substance abuse problems reported they could not access care when needed. The pandemic only exacerbated the situation, particularly among low-income communities and communities of color.  

This groundbreaking effort 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 behavioral health needs of individuals and families, many of whom face poverty and are challenged by long-term mental health issues. 

“This has been an extraordinary year for the WDI initiative and behavioral health in Washington state,” said Eddie Uehara, professor and Ballmer Endowed Dean in Social Work. “In addition to expanding the diversity and numbers of well-prepared, debt-relieved social work and mental health practitioners, the initiative continues to serve as a model for collaboration between higher education, communities, philanthropy and the public sector.” 

The first cohort of WDI scholars graduated in June 2022, and the second and third cohorts are underway. In all, 142 students have participated in the program since its inception, including 42 from the University of Washington advanced social work programs at the Seattle and Tacoma campuses. 

For Kat Kelly, who graduated from Eastern Washington University in June with a master’s degree in mental health counseling, the WDI scholarship made all the difference. “Starting my graduate program during the pandemic in 2020 was difficult enough,” she said, “and then my husband was laid off. Months into the program, I found out I was pregnant. In November 2021, we were in severe debt and disheartened by the struggles that the COVID-19 pandemic created. That’s when I heard of the Ballmer grant and applied immediately. The day I opened my acceptance letter, I knew I would graduate. It meant everything to me.” 

In addition to providing much-needed financial support for graduate-level study, the program provides students with access to mentorship and career guidance to help establish a reliable and sustainable supply of career professionals. Ensuring that students get the best fit and make the right choices for their future employment reduces agency turnover, which can be as high as 60%. 

“We’ve developed a variety of tools to help socialize students about the behavioral health experience in a community setting,” says Margaret Spearmon, director of community engagement, UW School of Social Work. “Students have access to a range of resources, including webinars, advice from recent graduates or professionals in the field, job readiness checklists, career self-assessment tools and professional career counseling.” 

Program administrators are also partnering with the behavioral healthcare centers to identify the skills they most value for incoming clinicians, closing the gap between the preparation of graduates and the delivery of behavioral health services.

Workshops and seminars offered throughout the program and post-graduation enhance a student’s career path to success. “The workshops foster a sense of support and togetherness in a field that is highly emotional and labor intensive,” said Darlene Vander Schuur, who graduated in August from Seattle University with a master’s degree in couples and family therapy. With a passion for underserved populations, Vander Schuur was hired at a community mental health organization in Burlington, Wash., after graduation. “The organization serves a primarily Latino community, and I work mainly with kids and teens. I absolutely love it!”

As a first-year MSW student at the UW School of Social Work and a Ballmer scholar, Francisco Leos Esquivel looks forward to working with his community. “This grant allows me to show up not only for myself but for my community,” said Esquivel. “Social work is not a set of ideas; it is a practice that is seen daily by the people it serves. Social work reflects the grand work we must keep addressing as a community, nation and world.” 

“It’s remarkable, and humbling, to see the impact we are making so soon after the initiative’s launch,” said Uehara, who created the WDI model. “With such progress to date, we are on track to transform behavioral health care in Washington state and achieve greater health equity among low-income families and communities of color.”