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Experts say low pay for mental health professionals has led to statewide staff shortage

Central Alabama Wellness staff shortages, ABC 33/40
Central Alabama Wellness staff shortages, ABC 33/40
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The mental health field is suffering a major staffing shortage.

The Alabama Council for Behavioral Health is reporting 1,142 job vacancies in the mental health field over the last year.

Professionals are attributing the shortage to a low pay scale provided for mental health professionals.

"A masters level therapist in public mental health on average makes less than a bachelors level teacher," Said Lindsey Stephenson Executive Director for Central Alabama Wellness, "It shouldn't be that the teachers make less. But instead, it should be that mental health is funded and supported as any other service would be.”

To help, the Alabama Department of Mental Health (ADMH) is requesting a $41.4 million budget increase in funds for the 2024 fiscal year.

According to ADMH Commissioner Kimberly Boswell, a large sum of those funds will go directly towards increasing mental health staff salaries across the state.

“We’re putting band-aids on it right now and trying to be as creative as we can but you know it’s a real issue," said Boswell to legislators, "This, what you see in the budget presentation is the longer term solution."

Central Alabama Wellness has consistently seen up to 30 job vacancies within their clinic since the start of the pandemic

The lack of staff along with an increase of demand for service has created burnout for those still in the mental health field.

“We've had therapists who were covering two or three case loads and then managers also covering case loads," said Stephenson, "What that does is you don’t get to offer the same energy to supporting clients that you would. And a lot of time that comes out as compassion fatigue. Meaning we care about people, but the more difficult it becomes for you personally the more difficult it becomes to offer flexibility and offer compassion to clients.”

ADMH has tried to help facilities financially by covering overtime for these employees with federal funding.

But Boswell says that is not sustainable and this budget increase is the first step to fully fixing the problem.

Stephenson says right now her clinic is still operating as they should be. But if employees continue to leave the field, the future of some programs may have to be reconsidered.

"We still are two or three employees away from not being able to keep open a group home,” said Stephenson.

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With rising inflation continuing to be a factor Stephenson tells ABC 33/40 she is counting on this budget increase being approved. Not just for her staff, but for the patients.

"You sit down with a client and they say 'you know I've had five therapists in the last two years are you going to stay?' I'm hopeful that all of my staff now says 'Yes. I'm going to stay.' But you just can't make guarantees," said Stephenson.

This budget increase will have to be approved by state leaders at their upcoming legislative session.

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That will begin Tuesday March 7, 2023 in Montgomery at noon.

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