SAMHSA Helps Get Students on Behavioral Health Career Track
“I think people too often have the perception around behavioral health that it’s hard and it’s tough and it’s not fun,” said Anne Herron, SAMHSA’s director of the division of regional and national policy liaison. “We really want to counter that. It’s an incredibly rewarding profession. And I think anyone who has been working in the area can attest: To watch somebody reclaim their life is like nothing else you’ve ever seen.”
To spread that message, SAMHSA has partnered with HOSA: Future Health Professionals, an organization that goes into high schools to educate students about healthcare careers as just one part of its mission to increase the knowledge, skill and leadership abilities of those who will one day be healthcare providers.
“HOSA was really excited to join with us to include addiction counselors and mental health counselors among the health professions that they are highlighting in their activities in the schools,” Herron said. And HOSA’s reach is substantial. “The last numbers I saw, it’s in over 9,000 high schools in the country with over 200,000 students participating.”
An In-Demand Occupation
Through the program, students don’t just learn about the opportunities that exist in the behavioral health field, they learn that such workers have never been more needed. That’s due to a combination of factors. One, sadly, is a national addiction epidemic that is being fueled by dramatic increases in prescription opioid and heroin use.
Also playing a role in demand is the Affordable Care Act, which made addiction and mental health coverage an essential benefit in many insurance policies, and mental health parity laws, which require most insurers to cover mental health and addiction issues at the same levels as other medical services.
Better awareness within the medical community is also sparking a need for those with behavioral health expertise.
“What we’re seeing, particularly in primary care settings, is that physicians, nurse practitioners and other health professions are more clearly beginning to see the link between addiction and mental health and other chronic diseases,” Herron explained. “They are saying, ‘You know, if we treat these at the same time and in an integrated way, people get better and they get better faster.’ So I think it’s a combination that we’ve always had the demand, but now we’ve got the demand in other places as well.”
While exact statistics about how many people ultimately are needed to fill the gap aren’t yet available, what is clear is the need for skilled workers is great. “Right at this point, only about 10% of the people who identify a need for substance abuse treatment are able to access it,” Herron said.
The program teaches students that a broad range of addiction and mental health careers is available, some open to high school graduates willing to get special certifications, and others that require undergraduate or advanced degrees.
Another key concept promoted is this, Herron said: “No matter what profession you enter into, if it’s a health profession, you need to have some knowledge and expertise around behavioral health.”
Learning and Prevention
Feedback from the program so far has been “incredibly positive,” Herron said, and students have responded enthusiastically to special activities designed to boost understanding, including a range of competitive events such as the behavioral health knowledge test. “It really is just an opportunity for students to learn about mental health and substance abuse issues — prevention, treatment and recovery — and to kind of have a fun way of competing with each other,” Herron said. The contestants advance level by level until a national winner is named.
In some areas of the country, the program also helps connect high schools with local treatment and prevention communities “so students who really want to get a better sense of what goes on in a prevention program or a treatment program have the opportunity to learn,” Herron said.
And there’s another plus to educating students about mental health and addiction careers, Herron said. It’s also a way to teach them about the risks of substance use.
“Any time we can get kids to really understand what goes on in your body and brain when you’re using substances, that’s just very helpful, regardless of whether they choose to make it a profession or enter the career,” Herron said. “So I think there is certainly a preventive aspect to this.”
By Kendal Patterson
Follow Kendal at @kendalpatterson