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Michigan Researcher Guest Edits AJPM Supplement about Critical Challenges the Behavioral Health Workforce Faces in Meeting Population Needs

The U.S. mental health system faces considerable challenges in delivering behavioral healthcare to populations in need. In a special supplement to the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, experts focus on the key issue of behavioral health human resources for which substantial investment is needed to effect change. Articles in this issue cover research on workforce planning, service delivery and practice, and workforce preparation, and advocate for intelligent allocation of resources to ensure all clients have access to behavioral healthcare.

More than 44 million American adults have a diagnosable mental health condition, and rates of severe depression are worsening among young people. Mental health and disability are well-established drivers of substance use, and drug overdose deaths fueled by opioid misuse have more than tripled from 1999 to 2016.

[Photo: Dr. Angela Beck]

A 2016 report by the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) on the projected supply and demand for behavioral health practitioners through 2025 indicated significant shortages of psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, mental health counselors, and marriage and family therapists. The magnitude of provider shortages, however, is not the only issue when considering access to behavioral health services. Another major concern is maldistribution, since parts of the U.S. have few or no behavioral health providers available, and access to mental health services is especially critical in areas of poverty.

“It is imperative that a plan be developed to address the resource limitations inhibiting the delivery of behavioral health services,” says Dr. Angela J. Beck, of the University of Michigan School of Public Health and Behavioral Health Workforce Research Center, one of the supplement’s guest editors. “This set of articles collectively proposes strategies and best practices to guide success of the current and future behavioral health workforce.”

The 2016 HRSA report projected that the supply of workers in selected behavioral health professions would be some 250,000 workers short of the projected demand by 2025. These shortages, along with the maldistribution of behavioral health providers, further complicate the behavioral health landscape by limiting access to essential care and treatment for millions of individuals with mental illness or substance use disorders.

“The barriers to strengthening behavioral health workforce capacity and improving service delivery will not be easily overcome,” caution Dr. Beck and fellow guest editors Dr. Ronald W. Manderscheid, of the National Association of County Behavioral Health and Developmental Disability Directors in Washington, DC, and Dr. Peter Buerhaus, of the Center for Interdisciplinary Health Workforce Studies at Montana State University. “But with challenge comes opportunity. The increased national and state focus on mental health and addiction services has mobilized the field. The portfolio of efforts highlighted throughout this publication are strong evidence of this energy and enthusiasm. The vision for the future of the behavioral health workforce is one of real hope!”

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