Increasing the mental health workforce in rural areas of the United States means overcoming daunting challenges, and the success of initiatives to convince clinicians to relocate to those areas have been modest at best.
Some help in the effort has come through Health Careers Opportunity Program grants from the federal Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA), which are intended to increase the number of individuals from educationally or economically disadvantaged backgrounds who enter health and allied health professions programs.
The University of New Mexico (UNM) in Albuquerque used one of 13 grants for $111,000 over the past year to give undergraduates from rural areas the opportunity to observe clinicians at work and boost their interest in entering the mental health workforce.
The 15 UNM students in the university’s Mental and Behavioral Health Academy presented the results of their experience in poster presentations at the National Association for Rural Mental Health’s annual meeting in July.
Program participants came from rural areas or were “nontraditional” (for example, older) students, academy director Flor Cano-Soto, M.S.W., a program specialist in the Department of Psychiatry’s Center for Rural and Community Behavioral Health, told Psychiatric News.
Students met on Saturday mornings for a series of lectures on behavioral health and medicine.
They heard from psychiatrists, social workers, pharmacists, nurse practitioners, occupational therapists, physician assistants, and psychologists about their professions and the educational pathways needed to obtain jobs in those areas, said Helene Silverblatt, M.D., a professor of psychiatry and family and community medicine, in an interview with Psychiatric News. They also toured the university’s medical, pharmacy, and nursing schools and studied mental health first-aid concepts.
“All that was preparation for eight to 12 hours of service learning time spent at a behavioral health agency or shadowing a provider,” said Cano-Soto. The goal was not only to observe clinicians in action but also to look at the health disparities that the clinicians were trying to address.
Not all of the learning was observational. A prime goal of the program was to place the students on the track to graduate or professional schools, said Cano-Soto.
The academy also included a workshop in poster presentation and a commercial Graduate Record Examination prep course.
“Most of the students came into the program as psychology majors, but now they have a better understanding of the diversity of careers in the field,” she said. “They now know about other fields and how researchers work.”
Two students shadowed psychiatrists. Kelly Manning followed child psychiatrist Anilla Del Fabbro, M.D., an associate professor of psychiatry at UNM.
“The experience was very helpful in showing me what it was like to work in a community-based facility,” said Manning in an interview. “I observed Dr. Del Fabbro doing interviews while patients were having primary care exams. I have an interest in pediatric psychology or psychiatry, but I haven’t decided yet which way I’m headed.”
Another student shadowed Silverblatt in her role as part of a team of UNM faculty that sees adults with developmental disabilities in a transdisciplinary evaluation and support clinic.
“This has been a valuable learning experience,” said Marisa Elias, who is from Animas, N.M., a tiny crossroads in the southwestern corner of the state. “I really started thinking about how I can address my community’s needs. Now that I have this perspective, I can begin thinking about the pathway I want to take as a provider, especially in rural New Mexico.”
“The academy is just part of our general focus on behavioral health workforce development across the board, from community health workers to psychiatry residents, as well as expanding the capacity of our primary care providers to provide behavioral health in rural communities,” said Silverblatt.
The UNM School of Medicine’s Office of Diversity, which co-sponsored the academy, will follow the students over the next year to study the effects of the program, said Cano-Soto.
Whatever the academy’s successes, its immediate future is dim. The supplemental funding ended August 31, and there is no immediate plan to continue the supplemental funding, said Kathryn Cook of HRSA’s Office of Communications. ■