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BHWELL: Strengthening the Behavioral Health Workforce

3 people meeting in hospital hallway

The School of Social Work is helping to plug the gap in rural and underserved communities across Illinois with its innovative program in behavioral healthcare.

Illinois BHWELL—Behavioral Health Workforce Education, Learning & Leadership—is helping to address a shortage of behavioral health providers across Illinois, particularly in rural and underserved communities.

“Our goal is to train and place people in these places where there’s need,” says Janet Liechty, associate professor in the School of Social Work and principal investigator for BHWELL. “We have 91 field sites across the state, all in rural or underserved communities. Seventy percent of the first two cohorts who have graduated are employed in underserved or rural communities.”

BHWELL is in the third year of its four-year grant from the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA). Over the four years, Liechty expects 117 MSW students to graduate from the program, which equips students to take part in collaborative, integrated behavioral healthcare in rural and underserved communities across the state.

Using Data to Make Improvements

A hallmark of the program is its extensive data collection. Students are surveyed at pre-coursework, pre-field, mid-field, and post-field points (six months and one year after graduation). Students also provide feedback every Friday and through semester-ending focus groups. The data are both qualitative and quantitative.

“The grant was built with improvement in mind,” says Anna Keck, data management and evaluation specialist for BHWELL. “As we get feedback that something isn’t working, we make small tweaks all along, to tailor it for the students and the sites to be more efficient and have fewer glitches.”

Benefits of BHWELL

One benefit of the focus groups, which occur with the graduating students, is “they see how to integrate mental health with healthcare, and they can’t unsee it,” says Andrea Harris, BHWELL program coordinator. “They will take it with them throughout their career. They see how something they didn’t think they were going to be doing is going to be integral now to their career as social workers.”

Another benefit is realized immediately by many graduating students. “A number of them have emailed us saying ‘I got this job because of BHWELL, because they were interested in integrated care. I’m so glad I had this extra training!’ So, it’s a boost to them on the job market as well,” Liechty says.

BHWELL benefits all constituents involved: the School, the students, the placement sites, and the profession. “We’re now thinking pipeline,” Liechty says. “How do we recruit, train, work with employers, get organizations to help us recruit by looking around their healthcare system” and identifying those who could best use the experience that BHWELL provides and meet their future workforce needs. “We want to be part of a pipeline for communities in health provider shortage areas in our state.”

Liechty sees BHWELL as an essential part of the School’s mission. “We all really want our students to succeed, and we want to make a dent in increasing the quality and quantity of behavioral health services in underserved areas,” she says. “We’re very mission-focused. We know what we’re about, and we’re all pushing toward that. And our students catch that fever, too. They’re thinking ‘I’m part of something that’s bigger than me and my own career. I get to be part of this whole effort of improving quality and accessibility, of improving behavioral health in underserved areas.’”

New Grant Focusing on Mental Health Shortages

Although the current grant runs out at the end of August, Liechty is applying for a one-year extension, and has another four-year proposal in the works. “The next round, HRSA wants us to focus on mental health shortage areas,” Liechty says. “We already have a plan and a strategy mapped out for going forward for that.”

Contributing to the Field

Liechty is excited about the contributions BHWELL is making to the field in terms of helping to plug a gap in rural and underserved communities. She also sees the data they are collecting as having great value. “Our dataset is really unique,” she says. “I think we’re going to be able to contribute to frameworks and theories about how students learn and grow professionally, the making of a social worker. It’s not just that we’ve done it and we’re moving on. We’re building something.”

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