The legislature is to be applauded for their attention to the state’s mental health workforce. Senate bills SB1 and SB2, plus House Bill 5001 all offer positive incentives, programs, and funding meant to attract the next generation of mental health providers.
Ideas such as loan forgiveness, grants to pay for licensing fees, grants for hiring of social workers, and assistance paying for license preparation courses are all wonderful ideas. The only problem is that we are not offering anything to the current mental health workforce to keep them in place.
We are two years into the pandemic and the existing mental health workforce is exhausted. Unlike crises of the past where clinicians can finish their workday and leave for the refuge of their home, the pandemic effects all of us, all of the time. For many their home is now their office as providers pivoted to telehealth. There is no such thing as getting away from work or from Covid 19.
Social workers and other mental health providers have the same fears as everyone else. They feel the isolation we all have felt. They have faced the same losses we all have faced. For many mental health providers, they have witnessed long term clients struggle with Covid 19 and in some cases die from the virus.
The need for mental health continues to skyrocket and the current mental health workforce cannot keep up with the demand. After two years, the mental health workforce is facing burnout and increasingly leaving their positions. This is especially the case in the non-profit sector where salaries are insufficient to keep workers onboard.
Mental health providers have been the hidden heroes of this pandemic. Largely invisible to the public, protecting the confidentiality of their clients, they are not in the public limelight. While there is growing support for a robust mental health workforce, there has not been sufficient recognition paid to the current providers. It is not too late though to have their backs.
Speaking as a social worker, the first thing the legislature can do is lower the licensing fees for social workers. Connecticut has, by far, the highest social work licensure fees in the nation. Plus, Connecticut is one of only six states that renew the license annually. It is time for a biennial license.
Paid days off as a mental health day is much needed. We have to give our mental health providers support for their own mental health.
Compensation must be dramatically improved. Employers are now offering sign-on bonuses and starting salaries equal, if not higher, than that of current clinicians. What can be more demoralizing? Let’s improve salaries and give “stay-on” bonuses for those employees who have been with an employer for five years or more.
The legislature must fully fund the non-profit sector with a portion of the money allocated to mental health providers salaries. Part of the problem is that the mental health field is women dominated and women generally are compensated at levels less than men. This needs to change.
Health insurers must be called to task, too. Reimbursement rates do not reflect the value, training, knowledge, skills and experience of credentialed clinicians. Many providers have not even received a rate increase in years. Insurers get annual increases in premiums but not the mental health providers that make up their insurance panels and do the actual work.
If we do not address the needs of the current mental health workforce, we will continue to lose clinicians. The fine efforts of policy makers to build and expand the mental health workforce will fail. We will just be replacing the leaving workers with new graduates, there will be no net gain.
Stephen Wanczyk-Karp is the Executive Director of the National Association of Social Workers Connecticut Chapter in Rocky Hill.