University program to aid with mental health services in Illinois

Olivia Welshans | November 12, 2017

A new program funded by the University will expand the number of behavioral health providers in rural communities where residents lack proper medical services.

The Illinois Behavioral Health Workforce Education, Leadership and Learning program intends to increase the clinical competencies of 116 graduate-level social work students who are pursuing employment as integrated behavioral health consultants.

Janet Liechty, program director for BHWELL and professor of social work and medicine, said the program will increase accessibility and improve infrastructure of behavioral health services in rural communities.

Liechty said there are three main areas that rural communities struggle with in behavioral services: accessibility, availability and acceptance.

The cost of transportation and the distance to behavioral health services often prevents people from getting the access they need, she said.

Availability is also an issue. According to the federal Health Resources and Services Agency, 90 percent of Illinois counties are mental health professional services shortage areas.

“Fragmentation of services can often play a role in this,” Liechty said, “You might have five doctors in one spot and only one in another.”

Acceptance of mental health disorders can also present challenges to rural communities. Stigma behind behavioral health problems can be higher in rural areas, but Liechty said that she hopes increasing the accessibility to these services will reduce this.

BHWELL will use an evidence-based integrated care model, which places behavioral health practitioners in primary care settings as members of interprofessional care teams.

Doctors will be able to refer patients immediately to social workers, Liechty said.

Sixty percent of grant funding will be put toward student scholarships. Using HRSA’s “grow your own” model of health professions, workforce development will recruit students directly from under-served communities.

Liechty said that the program will improve the behavioral services workforce within rural communities by recruiting qualified people from within those communities.

“People who already have an undergraduate degree can get trained on a master’s level and come back to their community,” she said.

Students in the program will earn a certificate in integrated care along with an Master’s of Social Work degree. Liechty said that students can complete some of the coursework for the program through iMSW online, but some classes need to be taken on campus.

This combination of online and on-campus courses will allow students who travel far distances to gain their degree.

BHWELL students will also complete a two-semester field placement in rural and under-served areas willing to implement HRSA’s model, where they will receive interprofessional training and coaching.

The Daily Illini