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UNMC legislative report says more behavioral health professionals needed

Omaha, NE (December 29, 2021) The Behavioral Health Education Center of Nebraska’s recently released legislative report highlights a 33.5 percent overall increase in the behavioral health workforce in Nebraska from 2010 to 2020, with prescribers increasing 32 percent and psychologists and mental health therapists increasing 39 percent.

Yet even with the overall growth of the workforce, the FY 2020-2021 legislative report illustrates both a shortage of behavioral health professionals in much of Nebraska and an aging workforce.

The report shows that across Nebraska:

  • 88 of 93 counties meet federal criteria as mental health professions shortage areas;
  • 29 counties lack a behavioral health provider of any kind; and
  • The behavioral health workforce is aging, with more than half the workforce over age 50

Housed at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, BHECN is in its 12th year of serving Nebraskans. BHECN was created in 2009 when the Nebraska Legislature passed LB 603 to address Nebraska’s behavioral health workforce shortage.

“What we learned from this survey is that since BHECN was founded in 2009, the behavioral health workforce has continued to increase. This is very promising news,” said Marley Doyle, MD, director of BHECN and an assistant professor in the UNMC Department of Psychiatry.

“However, we also study the demographics of the current behavioral health workforce, and we know that the workforce is aging and mostly concentrated in urban areas.”

Dr. Doyle added: “In Nebraska, one in five people either has a mental health diagnosis or a substance use disorder. And we’re seeing even higher numbers because of the pandemic. In Nebraska last year, overdose deaths rose by 43 percent. Teachers and education leaders have stated they’ve never seen so many young people struggling with their mental health. So, we know that there is a great need for behavioral health services. We also know that there are not enough behavioral health providers to meet this need.”

BHECN has a unique partnership with all graduate behavioral health training programs in Nebraska and is dedicated to improving access to behavioral health care across the state.

“At BHECN, we are continuously working to create innovative ways of recruiting and retaining our workforce,” Dr. Doyle said. “We have experienced growth in some areas. Most notably, we have seen major increases in the number of psychiatric nurse practitioners and mental health counselors.”

As part of BHECN’s strategy to grow Nebraska’s rural behavioral health workforce, BHECN added the BHECN Panhandle office in August 2019, joining BHECN Kearney as a satellite location.

BHECN Panhandle is coordinated out of Chadron State College and led by co-directors Tara Wilson, PhD, associate professor at Chadron State, and Catherine Jones-Hazledine, PhD, owner of Western Nebraska Behavioral Health. BHECN’s Rural Provider Support Network provides training and events to connect rural professionals.

Dr. Jones-Hazledine said, “The network connects a community of professionals who might not otherwise meet each other and helps to break down those feelings of being the only professional in an area.”

“By adding a BHECN site at Chadron State, it has allowed us to expand our outreach efforts in western Nebraska. This relationship will help us to continue to foster growth in the number of providers in rural, frontier and underserved areas of the state.”

Said Dr. Doyle, “We are grateful for the partnerships we have in Nebraska’s panhandle and excited to have a BHECN presence there. Our goal is to continue developing partnerships and expanding BHECN’s presence across all regions of the state.”

More than 5,000 students have participated in BHECN’s ambassador program. This program introduces high school, college and professional school students to careers in behavioral health through a series of presentations, events and conferences. The program also connects students, especially in rural and urban underserved communities, with resources and mentors to pursue behavioral health careers in Nebraska.

“Creating impactful educational experiences for college and graduate students to interact with behavioral health providers is important,” Dr. Doyle said. “We also place behavioral health trainees in clinical rotations and internships, reaching all corners of the state to help shape their careers and encourage them to stay and work in Nebraska.”

Through BHECN’s Nebraska Behavioral Health Education Partnership program, strong partnerships have been developed with the 18 academic institutions providing graduate-level behavioral health education in Nebraska.

With the help of state and federal grants and community partners, BHECN has connected people with training at integrated behavioral health clinics, especially in rural and underserved communities. Integrated behavioral health clinics (primary care clinics integrated with a behavioral health provider), psychiatric hospitals and community-based centers serve as training sites.

In support of the existing workforce, BHECN provides live and online training opportunities and resources to clinical providers, educators, community organizations and individuals. BHECN also supports the behavioral health workforce through networking, helping to connect colleagues and promoting retention.

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