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Youth behavioral-health issues are the focus of a new U of M social-work training program

Nationwide, there is a growing shortage of social workers trained to assist youth facing mental illness and addiction. 

Nationwide, there is a growing shortage of social workers trained to assist youth facing mental illness and addiction. This year, with an eye to filling that gap, Joseph Merighi, associate professor of social work at the University of Minnesota, proposed the Minnesota Social Work Initiative in Behavioral Health, a program designed to train masters in social work (MSW) students to take jobs at community-based behavioral-health clinics, primary care clinics and substance-abuse centers.

To fund the program, Merighi applied for a $1.28 million grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Health Resources and Services Administration. In September he received word that the university had won the full award.

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The grant’s principal investigator, Merighi explained that part of the money has already been put to work to fund a program for a cohort of 30 University of Minnesota MSW students. The 30 Behavioral Health Fellows, as they are now called, will graduate this spring. A new crop of 30 students will begin the program next fall, and another the year after, for a total of 90.

“We’re training this group to work at the intersection of mental health and substance-abuse issues,” Merighi said. “There is a work-force shortage for behavioral health, and this particular grant targeted a specific underserved population: children, adolescent and ‘transitional-age’ youth between the ages of 16 and 25. Our goal is to get our MSW students trained and working as soon as possible.”

Quick response to a specific need

Merighi and his colleagues heard about the grant opportunity in April. Though the deadline was tight — applications were due June 3 — they decided to apply. With the assistance of MSW/PhD student Christy Dechaine, Merighi turned all his attention to the task.

Associate Professor Joseph Merighi
Associate Professor Joseph Merighi

“We spent the month of May writing the proposal,” he said. “We proposed training cohorts of 30 students a year over a three-year period.”

The grant came through, and by October 1, 30 Behavioral Health Fellows — MSW students in the final, or “concentration” year of the program — had been given a one-time award of $10,000 to fund their education and focus on behavioral health.

“We drafted a curriculum in which students will get training in the requisite areas of study in substance abuse, trauma, mental health and interprofessional practice,” Merighi said. Fellows will also complete a 480-hour internship in a community-based agency that targets mental health and substance abuse disorders in children, teens and young adults.

Simulations with actors

The Fellows’ counseling skills will be further refined with the help of the University of Minnesota’s Academic Health Center’s Simulation Center, Merighi said. In the simulations, professional actors will be hired to pose as standardized patients in specific case scenarios that the students will lead. The sessions will be digitally recorded and then analyzed by faculty and students. “They will also complete another 45-minute session with actors playing a family,” Merighi said.

All this training and preparation has one specific goal: producing graduates qualified to work with a vulnerable population in need of their services.

“We are very excited to have the opportunity to train graduate social work students who will expand and strengthen the behavioral health work force in the Twin Cities,” Merighi said. “The need is clearly there and we are addressing it.”