CHADRON – The counseling department at Chadron State College and the Behavioral Health Education Center of Nebraska (BHECN) are working together in an effort to address the critical shortage of mental health care professionals in rural Nebraska.
The collaboration, which includes three different grants to CSC, was highlighted in a visit to Chadron last week by BHECN director Dr. Howard Liu. A shortage of trained workers in fields such as addiction treatment, counseling, psychology and psychiatry exists across Nebraska, but is particularly acute in rural areas like the Nebraska Panhandle, Liu said during a lunchtime meeting with CSC’s counseling faculty. That translates into long waiting times for people seeking help, and often long driving distances for those who are able to find a provider, he said.
“It is much better to have someone trained locally to deliver those services,” Liu said.
Created by the Nebraska legislature in 2009, BHECN’s goal is improving access to behavioral health care across the state by developing a skilled and passionate workforce, according to the organization’s website. A series of reports on the website document the scarcity of behavioral health professionals in rural Nebraska and the challenges that rural counties face in recruiting and retaining workers in the field.
The largest of the three BHECN grants to Chadron State aims to encourage students to enter the field of addiction counseling and earn certification as a Licensed Drug and Alcohol Counselor (LDAC). In Nebraska, a high school diploma, coupled with courses in a curriculum approved by the state, and a set number of hours of practice under supervision of a licensed practitioner allows an individual to take the test required to become a LDAC. CSC will use part of BHECN’s $29,000 grant to develop the required curriculum and make it available to students online, said CSC Associate Professor Dr. Susan Schaeffer. Much of the curriculum is already incorporated in Chadron State’s master’s degree program in counseling, but Schaeffer said the funding will allow her to redevelop the courses for undergraduate students.
The grant also includes $20,000 for scholarships, with the aim of recruiting 10 students into the program, Schaeffer said. Although intended to increase the number of LDACs in Nebraska, Schaeffer said she has been encouraged to also recruit students from South Dakota and Wyoming, and work with authorities in those states.
“The curriculum we are developing will meet the majority of their requirements, as well,” she said.
Schaeffer said she plans to complete curriculum development in the current semester and use the spring 2018 semester to market the program and recruit students, so they can begin course work in the fall of 2018.
Dr. Laura Gaudet, chair of CSC’s counseling department, said the program could draw high school graduates from western Nebraska and the Pine Ridge reservation and students from Western Nebraska Community College, and encourage them to remain in the area to work.
“It is win, win, win,” she said.
A separate BHECN grant of about $8,000 will be used to develop a behavioral health career interest group, and provide assistance to people in the field who are seeking jobs in Nebraska, Schaeffer said.
“The purpose truly is to keep students who are interested in behavioral health careers in Nebraska,” she said. “We want to help train and encourage people to stay here.”
Dr. Tara Wilson, another member of CSC’s counseling faculty, is working on a third BHECN grant focused directly on high school students. For it, Wilson and Dr. Cate Jones-Hazeldine of Rushville-based Western Nebraska Behavioral Health will visit two high schools in the region and two on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota with a program to show students the possibilities of a career in mental health.
Wilson will also develop a photo voice poster as way to personalize the idea of mental health therapy. The poster features a narrative written by a person suffering from a mental health problem such as depression, and a photo chosen by that individual to illustrate their thoughts.
“When you hear depression, there is a stigma around that. When you hear the person’s story, you can connect with that person. It becomes more tangible,” said Wilson, who has seen the value of photo voice projects in other contexts.
The grants are all part of a larger strategy to improve access to mental health services across the state and to provide local treatment options, said Liu. Exposing students to career possibilities in mental health care is seen as a way to increase the number of workers in the field, he said, and providing training opportunities close to where they live may encourage them to practice there as well.
“It’s very important that we do these pipeline programs,” Liu said.
A statewide shortage of LDACs ensures that there will be employment opportunities for students who take advantage of the training program at CSC that the grant will make available, according to Liu.
And long term demand for trained behavioral health professionals is good, said Nick Brotzel, outreach program coordinator for BHECN.
“There is not only a shortage now, but in the future,” he said. “They can make a good living in private practice.”