June 1, 2023

Policy recommendations from a mental health therapist in training

Changing my career and becoming a therapist revealed ways our country can grow its mental health workforce.

By Karin Cooke, Master’s in Counseling Degree Candidate, and Director, Kaiser Permanente International

When I joined Kaiser Permanente in 2008, it never occurred to me that one day I'd shift from the business and technology side of health care to a clinical role. But, in 2021, I began to reflect on my personal journey, what I valued, and how I wanted to use my life to help others. Throughout my reflections, mental health care kept coming to mind. Likely this was because of the many times the field crossed paths with my work advancing IT innovation and later leading Kaiser Permanente International.

As I began reimagining my life, I learned about the Kaiser Permanente Mental Health Scholars Academy, a new Kaiser Permanente effort to help address our country’s shortage of mental health professionals. MHSA provides scholarships for advanced degrees, helps students complete their mandatory clinical training hours, and offers mentoring opportunities. I was intrigued and took its launch in 2021 as a sign to explore a career in mental health care.

Challenges to joining the mental health care workforce

I began by researching and asking colleagues questions. I wanted to learn what challenges aspiring mental health care professionals faced. Could MHSA help overcome those hurdles?

I learned that many people who want to enter the field can’t afford to. A degree can cost tens of thousands of dollars for tuition and fees alone.

Also, it’s difficult to earn the required clinical hours to practice while still working full time. For many aspiring clinicians, this is a larger hurdle than affording tuition. Getting unpaid clinical hours often requires people to cut back on hours at their paid job. Not everyone can afford to do that.

Additionally, coordinating work schedules and responsibilities around clinical hour requirements is difficult. MHSA removes many of these barriers. The program works with Kaiser Permanente training programs to schedule clinical hours around the participant’s current job responsibilities. This makes it easier for participants to earn the clinical hours they need.

Learning how to start and move forward in a new profession is also a big challenge. This is especially true for people from groups that are underrepresented in the mental health care workforce. MHSA's mentoring program helps with this. It connects scholars with mentors from Kaiser Permanente for monthly talks. These talks help aspiring mental health professionals to be successful in the field. Mentors give support, share expert knowledge, and offer tools to help manage school, clinical work, and planning for postgraduate clinical opportunities.

For me, what MHSA offered was invaluable. With the support of my management at Kaiser Permanente and my family, I applied to MHSA in 2021. I was thrilled to be accepted as part of the first master's in clinical counseling class at the Kaiser Permanente School of Allied Health Sciences.

Enabling a diversity of professionals to enter the workforce

Once I began classes, I realized how MHSA enabled my classmates, who are from diverse ethnic, racial, and economic backgrounds, to become mental health care professionals.

One of my classmates, Metti Haile, is a diabetes clinic program assistant at the Kaiser Permanente Santa Clara Medical Center. She saw patients struggle to manage their diabetes treatment and their mental health. MHSA allowed Metti to work at the clinic she loves while becoming a mental health care provider. The program helped Metti advocate for a flexible schedule. This enabled her to gain a degree and complete the required clinical hours. The program also worked with the local unions to secure wage replacement financial support. The pay ensured Metti didn’t face financial hardship while pursuing her dream.

Another classmate, Lloyd Lacayanga, is a Kaiser Permanente regulatory consultant. He always wanted to pursue psychology and serve his community as a counselor. However, the cost deterred him. When the opportunity arose to get a master’s in counseling with a scholarship that covers 75% of his tuition, he made the leap.

What policymakers can learn from the MHSA program

MHSA offers important lessons for policymakers seeking to address our country's shortage of mental health care professionals. By investing in scholarships, loan forgiveness, stipend programs, and mentoring, as well as streamlining clinical hour requirements, we can enable more aspiring professionals from diverse backgrounds to enter the field. Implementing MHSA's approach at a national level has the potential to create opportunities for a wider range of individuals to contribute to the health and well-being of people across our country.