2021 | Government

Council members, nonprofits, health officials look to diversify mental health workforce

Improving salary, benefits, educational opportunities seen as solutions

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Montgomery County officials, nonprofit leaders and others discussed the need to diversify the workforce for mental health professionals at a joint Education and Culture and Health and Human Services committee meeting Thursday.

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More money, better benefits, and robust training are needed to build a more diverse workforce of mental health professionals, county officials concluded Thursday.

The Montgomery County Council’s Education and Culture and Health and Human Services committees met to determine what resources are needed to provide more diverse and culturally inclusive mental health professionals, especially in the public and nonprofit sectors. 

Multiple nonprofits and Department of Health and Human Services officials said the situation has improved in recent years, but there is still a need for bilingual licensed therapists and other diversity among mental health providers. 

Council Member Nancy Navarro said she has seen it personally, as her younger sister works as a social worker in Fairfax County, Va. Navarro said the private sector can offer more money and better benefits, so it’s a “logical choice” for a job instead of the public sector.

Navarro said that before she leaves office next year — she is term-limited, having been elected to her first full term in 2010 — she hopes county government and nonprofits can offer incentives, through education or in other areas. 

Jose Hernández, a bilingual psychotherapist at Affiliated Sante Group — a mental health clinic with an office in Silver Spring — said he appreciates how county officials have supported health care, especially mental health, in the past.

But there is room to improve, he said, because county officials should evaluate potential mental health professionals early in their educational careers, not as they are entering master’s programs.

Hernández said Montgomery College is looking at opportunities for students in two-year programs or a certificate program, to help them get certified in their area of expertise, then provide interpreter translation services alongside licensed individuals. It’s a good option, he said.

Joe Wilson, senior director of mental health services at the Rockville-based Jewish Social Service Agency, said his agency has a “fairly robust” student program that enrolls about 10 students per year. They try to attract diverse students, he added. 

They would like to take more, but there are “hidden costs,” he said — licensed professionals need roughly two hours a week to supervise and train students, time away from the field.

“What we do find, though, is that having that student program is a terrific way to build a pipeline for applicants,” Wilson said. 

Dr. Raymond Crowel, director of the county’s Department of Health and Human Services, said one area he and colleagues need to improve is diversity in leadership positions in mental health organizations.

That means a wider network for recruiting and providers holding themselves accountable, Crowel said. Diversity takes many different forms, he added. 

“We need to ensure that we are reaching out and serving a diverse community, African, Caribbean … our Asian communities and Ethiopian communities,” Crowel said.

“And even as we recruit Spanish speakers into the workforce, we need to understand that Spanish is not a monolithic language. It is incredibly complex,” he added.

Council Vice President Gabe Albornoz — the chair of the Health and Human Services committee — outlined four specific actions nonprofits and county leaders could take:

  1. More money in the budget for mental health services and a more diverse workforce 
  2. Identify state and local barriers that could be solved through legislation
  3. Use the County Council’s power as elected officials to direct more focus on the issue
  4. Collaborate with private philanthropists to direct more resources and money to the issue

People have to look at mental health help not just as a service, but as holistic parts of society, such as in housing and economic development, Albornoz said.

“This has to be infused as an element of all that we do across the board,” he said.

Steve Bohnel can be reached at steve.bohnel@bethesdamagazine.com