Two Missouri schools are addressing the need for mental health providers

COLOMBIA There is a chronic need for more mental health providers across the country, especially in rural areas. A program created by two schools in Missouri seeks to address the shortage of medical professionals.

William Woods University and State Fair Community College have partnered to help fill that need.

State Fair students can earn an Associate of Applied Science (AAS) degree in Behavioral Health Support, and then when they graduate, they can transfer to William Woods to work toward a Bachelor of Social Work degree.

The program enables easier credit transfer for students interested in further professional development in the field of mental health.

Missouri is currently the only state to offer AAS and a behavioral health support program to students.

“Students will leave with 65 credits in the AAS, and then those hours will be applied toward the 120 hours required for a bachelor’s degree at William Woods,” said program director Deanna Barklage.

Through this partnership, students can earn a bachelor’s degree in social work in a Council on Social Work Education (CSVE) accredited program. Students will then be licensed as social workers at the bachelor’s level.

Pursuing a career in social work involves the flexibility to practice in many areas, including school settings, private agencies, and government agencies.

Advocacy for the need for providers and the program as such came from the Missouri Department of Mental Health and the Missouri Behavioral Health Council. The program has been in development for less than a year, and the schools have worked with Compass Health Network, Burrell Behavioral Health and a number of other agencies.

“Many of these agencies say they prefer candidates to have an associate’s degree over a bachelor’s degree in psychology because they know they’re getting the specific skills and training needed to successfully serve clients,” Barklage said.

The first cohort of State Fair Behavioral Health Support students will graduate next May.

“At that point, they can start that application process at William Woods before they finish that degree,” Barklage said.

Barklage says the idea for a program like this came from officials who want to remove the stigma that comes with talking about mental health. She said she wants students to be properly prepared to earn a degree that leads to certification and licensure.

“The deal we have with William Woods is that we know that students who complete that degree [degree] in social work in the state of Missouri, they can get licensed at the bachelor’s level,” Barklage said.

According to the 2022 Bureau of Health Workforce Quarterly Summary, there is only a 12.2% unmet need for mental health professionals in Missouri, compared to a national unmet need of 27.7%.

The director says that this program has come at the right time because there is a serious need for more mental health care and attention in rural areas. Historically, there has been a lack of education, transportation, and telehealth services in rural areas.

“By making this possible at our community colleges, they’ve become very engaged in our rural communities, so we’re able to almost be the staffing choice for some of those rural agencies,” Barklage said.

While the program is in its early stages, Barklage says he knows there will be many current students in the associate program interested in graduating from William Woods.

As the program continues to grow, Barklage expects 15 to 20 students per cohort. She said an online version of the program for students who can’t commute could also be in the works.

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