January 19, 2023
Greater Investment in the Behavioral Healthcare Workforce Is Needed for the Wellbeing of New Jersey's Diverse Population
A March 2022 report by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration shows that the nationwide number of behavioral health social workers and caseworkers is only 55% of the optimal number required to meet the ever-increasing level of need and demand for their services. The percentages of psychiatrists, advanced practice nurses and peer support specialists are also significantly lower than needed.
"Behavioral health workers are Partners in Care for children, youth and adults of every nationality, race, ethnicity, culture and age in New Jersey. They literally save lives and empower individuals to greatly improve their quality of life. Though they are an essential workforce, they are drastically underpaid," said Debra L. Wentz, PhD, President and CEO of the New Jersey Association of Mental Health and Addiction Agencies (NJAMHAA). "The recruitment and retention crisis is worst in the behavioral healthcare field versus other industries because the remuneration is so low. Many clinicians and other staff are leaving at a time when demand for their critical services continues to exponentially increase."
NJAMHAA's new campaign, Diverse Faces: Partners in Care, illustrates the value of mental health care, substance use disorder (SUD) treatment and other supportive services -such as legal services, childcare, supportive housing, supported education and supported employment - and the critical importance of the individuals who provide these essential services for New Jerseyans of all ages and backgrounds. In the campaign publication and five accompanying videos, behavioral healthcare staff and the individuals they serve describe how the clinical treatment and other supports are enabling them to progress in their recovery from SUD and mental illnesses and achieve individualized goals, such as family reunification, education and employment.
"Kayla and the other staff were really there for me and I will forever be grateful," said Stephanie Hover about Integrity House. "Stephanie successfully completed long-term residential care and she has moved on to a halfway house, where she is getting experience with job readiness, résumé writing and all those things that are going to help her be successful," said Kayla Cheatum, LCSW, LCADC, Associate Director, Women's Residential program. "We all have a common goal. We want everyone to be successful, healthy and happy. We are at a disadvantage financially and it affects workflow because we have a shortage right now with clinical staffing," Cheatum added.
"Stephanie's progress toward recovery and Kayla's dedication to Stephanie are truly inspiring. Their story is one of many where members of our behavioral health workforce establish strong, trusting relationships with the individuals they serve and have aprofound, positive influence on their lives," Dr. Wentz stated. "There are countless successes achieved by New Jersey's diverse residents as a result of the behavioral health services they receive. Organizations need more funding so they can pay staff the market-rate salaries they deserve and make many more successes possible."
Favio Jasso is another compelling example of the life-changing impact counselors have. In 2021, Favio was severely depressed, neglected his health, and left high school in 10th grade. "I was dealing with past traumas that I hadn't really dealt with properly. I already knew I wanted to make a change in my life. I just needed the resources to be able to achieve that and NewBridge Services was the place that I knew could help me," he said. "When Favio was able to be successful academically and vocationally and also healing from within, it made a huge difference. He now has a bright outlook on his future," said Amy Sheppard, LCSW, Director of NewBridge Services' Jobs Plus program.Having earned a high school diploma through this program, Favio provides freelance marketing services to businesses and is studying Business Administration at the County College of Morris. He plans to transfer to Rutgers Business School - Newark after he completes his Associate's degree.
The behavioral health workforce serves every community, including the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning/queer (LGBTQ) population, which has a significantly higher rate of depression and suicide compared to the general population. According to the Trevor Project, LGBTQ youth are more than four times as likely to attempt suicide than their non-LGBTQ peers. Behavioral healthcare services designed specifically for LGBTQ individuals are available and highly effective. Family Connections operates one such program, Pride+. "I just want to be the person I wish I had when I was their age. I struggled through so much," said JP Pedoto, LSW, Pride+ Program Coordinator and Clinician, referring to his adolescence when he recognized he was meant to be a male and went through that transition. "I know I'm never going to stop all that struggle, stigma or hate, but even if I can just be there and let them know that they are heard and loved, that they belong - that, to me, is all that matters." Jessi Holdbrook, a Pride+ program participant stated, "Having JP is very helpful. He reassures me that being me is actually normal. He helped me figure out that my gender dysphoria is not a disease and people do get through it."
"New Jersey's behavioral healthcare workforce is extremely compassionate, dedicated and effective for hundreds of thousands of New Jersey's children, youth and adults of every age, race, ethnicity, culture, gender and religious group throughout the state," Dr. Wentz stated. "Without a significant investment in the behavioral health workforce, many others like Stephanie, Favio and Jessi will not be able to access the services they need and deserve to live their healthiest and most fulfilling lives possible," Dr. Wentz added. "The behavioral health workforce makes an extraordinary impact not only on the lives of the individuals and families they serve, but also on New Jersey's bottom line, as these mental health, substance use and other services prevent costly emergency room visits, hospitalizations, homelessness and situations that could lead to incarceration. Our Partners in Care help these individuals to become contributing members of their communities and taxpayers."