4 ways Kaiser Permanente is bolstering behavioral workforces

With the gap between supply and demand for mental healthcare expected to widen in the next decade, health systems are ramping up efforts to increase the number of mental health clinicians. 

According to the Health Resources and Service Administration, the number of mental health professionals is expected to decline by 15% between 2021 and 2036, while demand is expected to grow by 62%. 

Oakland, Calif.-based Kaiser Permanente is providing training, financial support and community resources to bolster the mental health workforce. 

Don Mordecai, MD, national leader for mental health and wellness at Kaiser Permanente, shared more about the system's efforts with Becker's. 

Responses have been lightly edited for length and clarity. 

Question: What efforts does Kaiser Permanente have in place to increase the number of mental health professionals? 

Dr. Don Mordecai: Kaiser Permanente has made significant investments in a number of programs to increase the supply of qualified mental health professionals, particularly mental health professionals from underrepresented groups and those with bilingual skills. 

These programs include:

  • Mental health training programs: Across California, more than 350 trainees each year participate in practicums, internships and fellowship programs at Kaiser Permanente.
  • Post-master’s associate programs: Once individuals graduate with their master's degree, Kaiser Permanente has employment opportunities that provide the required supervision for licensure. We have established programs in California for associate clinicians, and we are expanding to have associate programs across our footprint, with new programs launched in Washington and Oregon, and soon to launch in Georgia. We anticipate programs across the communities we serve by the end of the year.
  • Mental Health Scholars Academy: This program provides Kaiser Permanente employees with the opportunity to go back to school, earn a master's degree and join our workforce as a therapist. The program pays 75% of the tuition and provides mentoring and networking for training placements in our clinics. We graduated 87 employees in 2023 who are now moving into roles as associate therapists as they work toward licensure. The Mental Health Scholars Academy has additional support that provides grants to increase the number of diverse, underrepresented, and bilingual mental health professionals in our communities.
  • Community Health Accelerator Program: This program is outside of Kaiser Permanente and seeks to positively impact the communities we serve by providing grants to support hiring supervisors, as well as stipends for trainees, to increase the number of community training sites for pre- and post-master's mental health trainees. 

Q: What are the biggest barriers to pursuing a career in mental healthcare? 

DM: Some of the significant barriers include the cost and time involved in becoming a mental health professional. To be an independently licensed therapist typically requires a minimum of a master's degree. 

Master's degree programs are time intensive and expensive. For some, the financial burden may be prohibitive. Another barrier is the need for high-quality, supervised clinical experiences. Students and graduates also need access to training programs to complete their required practicums, internships and fellowships. Across the entire healthcare industry, cultural representation is critical.

Q: How could someone overcome some of those barriers? 

DM: An individual can seek out scholarship opportunities to help overcome a financial barrier. California has programs that provide tuition grants for MSW students, as one example. Organizations like Kaiser Permanente provide tuition support to their employees, too. It's clear the healthcare industry needs more training programs and opportunities for hosting trainees. At Kaiser Permanente, we are rolling out post-master's associate programs in the communities we serve, allowing master's program graduates to work in our system in paid and benefited jobs while receiving the supervision required for licensure.

Q: More psychiatrists are planning to retire than there are younger clinicians entering the field. How do you interest young people in mental health careers? 

DM: High school mentoring programs can prove beneficial. For example, some of our training programs provide mentoring to students in health academy high schools to increase awareness of healthcare professions and how to join the healthcare workforce. In northern California, another example is our Youth Career Days that expose high school students to a variety of different healthcare career paths, including mental health.  

Q: How do you support current employees in this field?

DM: For therapists, developing cohorts through programs like our Mental Health Scholars Academy and post-master's associate program where staff feel connected to each other is important. Also, ongoing training opportunities and communities of practice for clinical supervisors and new associates in to the post-master's program to enhance onboarding and support in the critical first several years of practice. Loan forgiveness initiatives to alleviate the financial burden of graduate programs are also helpful.

Q: Do you have any initiatives around increasing the number of mental health professionals in underserved communities?

DM: We have a number of initiatives, through our community health programs, that aim to do just that. Our community health accelerator program provides grants to community clinics to fund supervisors and stipends for trainees, with a focus on diversity and underrepresented groups entering the workforce. 

In California, our mental health scholars academy provides support to increase diversity, representation and linguistic skills in our state's mental health workforce. They have funded training programs serving underserved communities in Sonoma County, the Oakland/East Bay area, and the Central Valley, with a focus on bilingual providers that can help meet the needs of the AAPI and Latinx communities. 

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