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Social work advocates: More resources required to meet growing need

By Jamie Lampros - Special to the Daily Herald | Feb 7, 2023

Isaac Hale, Daily Herald file photo

Social workers Marsha Baird, right, and Dario Burdette hand out programs during Provo High School’s drive-thru diploma ceremony Tuesday, May 19, 2020.

The demand for social workers is increasing, but care is diminishing.

In the past few years, Davis Behavioral Health has gone from 350 people per month seeking help to over 800 since the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

“The challenge is getting consistent help for people,” said Brandon Hatch, CEO of Davis Behavioral Health. “If someone comes in with depression, we like them to come back in a couple of weeks. But when you have a short workforce, you have to tell them to come back in four weeks, so they’re not being seen as often as needed. We have seen a lot of people coming in for help with depression and anxiety.”

Hatch said paying people a decent salary is one obstacle hindering access to help.

“I worry about someone coming into the profession and having a master’s degree and it’s not a profession that pays very well,” he said. “We need to be able to pay people a worthwhile salary so they’ll want to go into the field and stay in the field.”

Weber Human Services Executive Director Kevin Eastman said much of his frustration comes from underfunding and watching some of his best people leave for better paying jobs. Right now, he said he has eight openings available, which means about 10% of his workforce is vacant.

“We actually created the perfect storm. Our system was underfunded for years. Then we started seeing gun violence in schools and the crisis with COVID. We decided we were going to pay closer attention to mental health, but funding started going in several different directions,” he said.

Eastman said many therapists have left to pursue private practice. Others have left to go work for school districts, which pay the same salary but have the perks of taking the summer off. Other places are offering therapy sessions online with counselors from out of state.

“I’m not opposed to video therapy, but we know the majority of therapy sessions have better outcomes when they’re done face to face. You can do more harm to a person if you don’t know what you’re doing, and you can make their symptoms worse,” he said. “So all of these shortcuts can be detrimental.”

In addition, Eastman said, people don’t take vacations from their problems. So while having therapy in schools is a good thing, during the summer kids are seeking help from other government entities, which means the bills are being paid twice.

“This is frustrating because the Legislature has invested over $10 million into education-funded social work instead of funding our system,” he said. “They put it directly in the schools and the schools want to hire their own people. I get these highly trained clinicians and now they can go work for the same amount of money for nine months out of the year.”

Hatch and Eastman both said they are grateful for a new master’s program in social work offered at Weber State University and hope to fill some of their slots with some of those graduates.

“Life is getting more challenging in general and the population is growing, so there are more and more needs for mental health services,” said Mark Bigler, chair of the Department of Social Work and Gerontology at WSU. “We wanted to help our community as much as possible, so we put together this master’s program with a number of unique features.”

The program focuses on more localized attention, the growing Hispanic population and the growing geriatric population.

“A lot of our students don’t tend to run off to the big city once they graduate; they go back to their communities. So we wanted to really focus on the needs of the Northern Utah Intermountain region,” he said. “In the fall of 2021, we launched our first cohort with 20 students. This last fall, we brought in a little more than 40 students, so we will be graduating 40-plus this spring.”

Bigler said students of the program aren’t inexperienced when they graduate. Quite the opposite, he said. Nearly 1,000 hours are spent working in specific internships.

“This gives them practical experience and also puts them in places where they can be potentially employed once they graduate,” he said. “But even with this program, we are not meeting the demand out there. We need to bring in more students and obtain more funding for faculty members. This is an important field and we need to find more ways and more incentives to get people out there so they can provide the help that’s needed in our community.”


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