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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

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Opinion >  Guest Opinion

Kimberlee Messina: New SFCC program will help meet community’s mental health needs

Kimberlee Messina, Ed.D.

By Kimberlee Messina, Ed.D.

Throughout our region and beyond, the growing demand for mental health services far exceeds the number of trained professionals. Many people who qualify for essential mental health and addiction treatment are unable to find providers. Spokane Falls Community College is responding to this need by launching a new bachelor’s degree.

Starting in the fall , SFCC will offer a Bachelor of Applied Science in Integrated Behavioral Health. It is designed for students with Associate of Applied Science degrees in addiction studies, integrated community services, or closely related fields. It can be pursued full- or part-time and, if desired, entirely online. The approval of the degree in 2022 culminated a multiyear process.

We developed this degree in response to requests from our partners in the community’s mental health, addiction services and primary care centers who cannot meet the needs of patients seeking help. The behavioral health workforce shortage is having a significant impact on access to needed services.

Data from the Washington Employment Security Department shows there are hundreds of job openings in our area (more than 700 in the most recent reports), and the demand is expected to grow by 2% annually. Nearly half of those jobs require bachelor’s degrees, and there is only one other institution in this area offering addiction studies. The limited number of graduates from existing programs will not make a significant impact in the shortage of qualified candidates to meet these urgent community needs. This means some of the most vulnerable don’t receive care.

Community partners worked with SFCC in developing the curriculum to address these inequities. Our program is centered on social determinants of health, the connection of behavioral with physical wellbeing across the lifespan and interdisciplinary teamwork. Students will do two clinical placements and graduates will be equipped with the skills needed in integrated healthcare settings.

In addition to providing enhanced training and clinical experiences for our students, we also will be able to greatly increase the diversity in this workforce. Currently, not only do so many positions remain unfilled, but the pool of applicants for them does not reflect the diversity of the area’s client and patient base. A lack of mental health providers in the community who represent the populations they are serving has a negative impact on the effectiveness of services.

Diversity is also socioeconomic – and community colleges offer a low-barrier and affordable path to higher education. This degree will help to increase diversity in the workforce and in graduate programs at other higher education institutions, should our graduates desire to continue their academic education.

Why is this degree so important? We can see in this newspaper every day about what’s going on with the opioid crisis, what’s going on with mental health and with our youth. The crisis is real – and this is why it’s critical for our region to expand essential services. We all know someone with a substance abuse problem; it’s so pervasive now. There is a need for more support. What may surprise people more is that there is this gap between the associate and master’s degree and that this bachelor’s program could really fill that need. Our graduates will help fill much-needed openings in rural areas.

At its core, this degree is an attempt to address the mental health and substance abuse crisis while creating a viable career pathway for providers who started out with an associate degree. Many of those graduates have experience with addiction or mental health challenges and want to give back.

Providers are struggling to provide services with multidisciplinary practitioners who hold bachelor’s degrees. Our graduates will fill an important gap that exists between associate and master’s work.

The gap we will help fill is literally like the emergency room of mental health – having the skill and the training to be able to triage effectively. It’s an amazing opportunity for the students themselves to continue to improve their lives. It’s a win-win for everyone.

Community colleges are charged with being resourceful and nimble, developing programs to meet our community’s economic and social needs. I am grateful for our strong regional partnerships and our ability to come together and create a solution that can help ease some of the suffering around us. Together we can make a lasting difference.

Kimberlee Messina, Ed.D., is president of Spokane Falls Community College.

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