Need for mental health, addiction services grows as workforce diminishes

PORTLAND, Ore. (KGW) — Worker shortages are impacting many industries including the mental health services field. There’s an increased demand for workers at the same time as an increased demand for these types of services, putting providers in a challenging position.

Mary Monnat, CEO of LifeWorks NW, said more people of all ages have realized they might need help to deal with anxiety, depression and addiction. While mental health providers want to meet the need, she said they’re in a world of hurt.

“We are honestly at a very tough crossroads,” she said. “You have this collision of increased need and lessening of the workforce. It’s just led, honestly, to a crisis in our field, where we have fewer and fewer workers to do the most critical work: life-saving work.”

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Monnat said industry wide, mental health workers are doing their best to keep things stable by taking on more existing patients. But there are limits.

For LifeWorks NW currently, compared to pre-pandemic, there are 30% fewer intakes, or new people entering into the system for care, because there isn’t the capacity to accept them.

Monnat said they employ nearly 575 people, but there are more than 90 jobs openings. Across the Portland area, she estimated there are about 500 open jobs in this field, between the other big mental health organizations.

“Pre-pandemic, we had same-day access. That’s the model that we used. Just come on in, we do not want any barriers,” she said. “With the pandemic, we can’t operate like that because of COVID… but more of it was because of the workforce. We just cannot accommodate people coming in like that.”

The focus now: keeping the professionals they do have, while finding ways to attract new workers.

Monnat said retention and hiring bonuses only go so far. While the people drawn to the profession aren’t in it for the money, wages must improve. She also suggested incentives like student loan assistance and scholarships.

“It’s all about the base. We have to get that higher so that we can continue to build and to have a workforce that is sustainable. A wage that’s sustainable that let’s people plan for the future.”

This March, LifeWorks NW and other organizations will partner through the Washington County nonprofit Vision Action Network to hold a summit to address workforce challenges.

“We’ve always offered support, but we are trying to just get more and more creative. How do we keep the people that we have engaged and supported?”

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