Oregon is facing a critical shortage of mental health care workers. But those interested and willing to enter the field face a high barrier to doing this work.
PORTLAND, Oregon – The impact of Oregon’s mental health care crisis is clear, and they’ve been made public in recent weeks: a child was pushed onto a MAX track; a man was attacked with parts of his ear and face was bitten off; an empty church was set on fire.
These issues are obvious to anyone who works with the homeless or in schools. Less obvious are the solutions to the problem—but one of them certainly involves addressing the dire staffing shortage in mental health care.
The Alcohol and Drug Policy Council released a report in September 2022 stating that Oregon is short of 36,000 behavioral health care workers, covering many roles in the field.
“These services are not available to the people who need them,” said Dr. Andy Mendenhall, president and CEO of Central City Concern, which works to meet the needs of Portland’s homeless. “Unfortunately, this affects hundreds, as many as a thousand people in our area every year.”
Many people who work in mental health care say they are distressed and burnt out by the increased demands on their jobs, especially when there are shortages.
“The pressure is definitely on this workforce,” said Stacey Chamberlain, executive director of the public employees union AFSCME of Oregon. “It’s a mentally challenging job. They burn out. They work overtime, a lot of mandatory Overtime just to get the job done, and then they leave the industry.”
A major problem behind the staffing shortage is poorly paid work, Chamberlain said, explaining that mental health care workers—many of whom can require expensive advanced degrees—may only make around $40,000 a year depending on what they do — while Not nearly enough to pay for housing, student loans, and child care, especially in a high-cost-of-living area like Portland.
“They couldn’t be successful,” Chamberlain added. “In fact, a lot of people in Oregon are particularly left behind.”
Oregon’s newly elected Secretary of Labor and Industry Christina Stephenson is advocating for more apprenticeship programs, rather than traditional internship programs, to fill needed roles in the behavioral healthcare field.
“The apprenticeship model, it’s a really beautiful model because you’re earning money as you learn,” she said. “You get employers and workers coming together to develop curricula that are actually based on the skills needed. We think that’s a really effective way to diversify the workforce.”
Other possible solutions are emerging: providing financial incentives for health care workers, including repayment of student loans and subsidies for housing and child care; providing pathways for those with criminal records to enter the field and use their lived experience to give back; and licensing equality, making it easier for people from out-of-state to join the field. Commissioner Stephenson said there is an opportunity for the Oregon Legislature to support sweeping changes to the workers’ pipeline.
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