As we enter month 15 since the first reported COVID-19 case in Minnesota, many of us have hit the pandemic wall. Additionally, repeated cases of police killings and general violence inflicted upon BIPOC people are compounding strain in our community. Being in a near constant state of anxiety, or experiencing trauma, isolation, or grief for such an extended period of time takes a toll. If you’re feeling exhausted by all this, you’re not alone. Recent studies indicate that 40 percent of adults in the U.S. reported symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorder during the pandemic, up from about 10 percent in the previous year. These rates are more pronounced among communities of color and those on the front lines responding to the pandemic.
While the demand for mental health and substance use services is higher than ever, our state continues to struggle with a shortage of providers to meet the need. This overall shortage is compounded for some communities because of poor geographical distribution of providers and the lack of racially and culturally diverse providers. Currently, providers do not reflect the changing demographics of our state. When people don’t feel connected to providers, or that providers will understand and help them, they don’t often seek or stay engaged in treatment. We know that communities of color use mental health services at a lower rate and are more likely to receive care for the first time in an emergency room or in the criminal justice system.
Thankfully, we have an opportunity to address this shortage in a way that benefits all Minnesotans. There has been strong community support for legislation that would help build a diverse, culturally informed mental health workforce throughout Minnesota. The goal is to remove the barriers aspiring mental health professionals face as they try to make a career out of their passion to serve. This legislation would increase the diversity and cultural competency of the mental health workforce by extending a loan forgiveness program to cover licensed alcohol and drug counselors and diverse mental health professionals, requiring continuing education units that focus on building a more culturally informed workforce, fund cultural healers, and create a multi-disciplinary work group to identify barriers to licensure and offer practical solutions.
These steps would strengthen our mental health system and support better outcomes for all Minnesotans. A larger and more diverse mental health workforce would make it easier for rural communities and communities of color to access and engage in care and treatment.
Over the course of the 2021 session this legislation received more than 40 letters of support from mental health and substance use associations, provider organizations and professionals leading to bipartisan support in four Minnesota House committees and its inclusion in the House Health and Human Services omnibus bill. The Senate had an opportunity to learn about the bill as it was walked through in detail during the May 12 meeting of the Health and Human Services Conference Committee.
Regular session has ended, but this popular proposal remains very much alive for special session. Now that we know the budget targets, we know that tough decisions will need to be made, but we call on lawmakers to prioritize this opportunity to build a mental health workforce that truly works for all Minnesotans by including these provisions in any final agreement this session. If ever there was a time to take action to improve our mental health system, it’s now. Minnesotans are worth this investment.
Dr. Pahoua Yang is vice president, Community Mental Health and Wellness, Amherst H. Wilder Foundation. Sue Abderholden is the executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness Minnesota.
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