BHWELL Program to Help Provide Mental Health Services to High-Need Areas in Illinois

Principal investigator Janet Liechty, is leading a $1.9 million initiative in the School of Social Work that provides behavioral health services to underserved areas in Illinois.

A newly funded initiative at the University of Illinois is expanding the number of behavioral health providers available to care for residents in medically underserved and rural communities throughout Illinois.

The Illinois Behavioral Health Workforce Education, Leadership and Learning program will train 116 master’s of social work students to provide collaborative behavioral health care services in primary care settings.

The goal of the program is to strengthen the clinical competencies among graduate-level social workers who will pursue employment as integrated behavioral health consultants in shortage areas throughout Illinois.

More than 90 percent of Illinois counties were designated mental health professional shortage areas by the federal Health Resources and Services Agency.  A $1.9 million grant from the agency is funding the BHWELL program, which will run through 2021.

“Many rural communities lack extensive infrastructure for behavioral health services, and the grant will help the university partner with key agencies and health care systems in the state of Illinois to expand and strengthen that infrastructure in high-need and rural areas using the integrated care model,” said principal investigator Janet Liechty, a professor of social work and of medicine at the university.

“Rural communities face many challenges accessing health and behavioral health care, such as transportation and workforce shortages, and residents of these communities experience higher rates of depression, suicide and untreated mental health conditions that are, in fact, treatable,” Liechty said.

The evidence-based integrated care model places behavioral health practitioners in primary care settings as members of interprofessional care teams, which work closely with physicians to effectively and efficiently refer patients for screening and treatment.

Sixty percent of the grant funding will be used toward student scholarships. In accordance with HRSA’s “grow your own” model of health professions workforce development, efforts are being made to recruit potential students from the regions the BHWELL program hopes to serve.

“It’s critical that behavioral health social workers know and appreciate the communities and diverse populations they will be serving – and that these scholars have strong potential to live and work in these areas after graduation,” Liechty said.

BHWELL students will study an enhanced curriculum to earn a certificate in integrated care along with an MSW degree. Students will complete some of the coursework online through the school’s hybrid iMSW program.

BHWELL students also must successfully complete a two-semester specialized MSW field placement, during which they receive ongoing interprofessional training and coaching.

Liechty and associate dean of field education Mary Maurer are working with Michael Glasser, the director of the National Center for Rural Health Professions, and staff members in the center’s Rural Medicine and Rural Pharmacy program to identify potential training sites.

These sites will be determined by matching students selected as BHWELL scholars with health care providers in rural and underserved areas who have existing integrated care teams or who are willing to implement this model, Liechty said. Prospective sites also must meet the requirements to be MSW field placement sites.

Janet Liechty is the principal investigator and co-investigators on the project include Peter Mulhall, the director of the Center for Prevention Research and Development; and Hana Hinkle, the director of the Illinois Area Health Education Center Network. More information about the BHWELL Scholars Program is available at

Editor’s notes: To reach Janet Liechty, call 217-265-0577; email

Written by: Sharita Forrest  | Illinois News Bureau, Education Editor  | 217-244-1072