By TYLER ELLYSON
KEARNEY – The statistics are staggering.
Nearly 1 in 5 Nebraskans have a mental illness, yet access to behavioral health resources remains extremely limited in many parts of the state. All but five of the state’s 93 counties are designated as mental health professions shortage areas and 29 counties don’t have any behavioral health providers.
“The need is great, especially in rural Nebraska,” said Krista Fritson, a licensed clinical psychologist and professor in the University of Nebraska at Kearney’s Department of Psychology.
In Kearney, for example, she notes that it can take anywhere from a couple weeks to a couple months to access certain behavioral health services. That’s a problem, especially with rates of anxiety, depression and other mental health conditions on the rise since the COVID-19 pandemic started.
Recognizing this shortage back in 2009, the state Legislature created the Behavioral Health Education Center of Nebraska (BHECN) to help recruit, train, support and retain mental and behavioral health professionals. BHECN is based at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, with rural sites at UNK, Chadron State College and Wayne State College.
This collaboration between the Legislature, academic institutions and community partners has made a positive impact, with the state’s mental and behavioral health workforce growing by 38% from 2010 to 2020. However, there’s still a lot of ground to gain.
“Given the fact that 88 of Nebraska’s 93 counties are designated as mental health professions shortage areas, these programs and the support for our students and mental health providers are crucial in order to continue to increase the number of professionals in Nebraska,” Fritson said.
In addition to her role as a faculty member, Fritson serves as director of the BHECN location at UNK, where a new pilot program is building on this momentum. The Behavioral Health Opportunities Program (BHOP) was launched this summer to continue expanding and enhancing this professional pipeline.
Similar to the Kearney Health Opportunities Program (KHOP), a successful partnership between UNK and UNMC that recruits and trains future health care professionals, BHOP is designed as a pathway program for students seeking behavioral health careers in Nebraska. Unlike KHOP, students in the behavioral health program can complete their entire education through UNK, starting in the undergraduate psychology program before advancing to the clinical mental health counseling master’s program.
Participants receive BHECN-funded financial assistance – covering 100% of tuition and most student fees during the final year of their undergraduate program and 25% of tuition during their first three years in the master’s program – and they’re eligible for additional funding to support conference travel and other professional development activities.
The inaugural cohort is comprised of six UNK students selected – two from the master’s program and four undergraduate seniors. As members of the same “learning community,” these scholars participate in monthly activities that allow them to build relationships and professional skills, including recent sessions that focused on equine therapy and meditation and mindfulness.
They also receive one-on-one mentorship from licensed behavioral health professionals currently working in the field, as well as opportunities for job shadowing and internships.
“For me, the most important thing is the real-world experience,” said Robyn Springer, a BHOP participant and graduate assistant for BHECN. “There are things you can learn from a book, but until you actually get out there and dip your toes in the water, you don’t know what it’s really like.”
Springer helped run a local roofing business for nearly three decades, then she went through a divorce and decided to return to school in search of “something different.”
“Once I started the psychology program, I realized I was home,” she said. “This is where I belong. I just love it.”
She earned her bachelor’s degree from UNK in May and is currently pursuing a master’s through the clinical mental health counseling graduate program. Along with the support system she has through BHECN and UNK, Springer has gained knowledge and professional connections by shadowing local therapists.
“That helps tremendously. We’re still students, so there are so many questions that we have about getting into this field,” she said.
“The experiences BHOP provides will allow us to begin our careers with so much more confidence, which is huge,” she added. “This program definitely provides that leg up.”
Moving forward, Fritson hopes to see BHOP incorporate other academic programs, such as social work, and expand to additional institutions across the state.
“We know that we have six individuals who are going to be master’s-level therapists in this area in three or four years because of this program,” she said. “That’s the kind of progress we need in order to improve access to care and the quality of care for Nebraskans.”
For more information on the Behavioral Health Opportunities Program, contact Fritson at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Members of the inaugural Behavioral Health Opportunities Program cohort, listed by hometown, are:
Gering – Olivia Longmore (undergraduate)
Kearney – Robyn Springer (graduate student)
Kearney – Mariah Seim (undergraduate)
Kearney – Haley Clark (graduate student)
Minatare – Juana Perez (undergraduate)
North Platte – Johanna McClure (undergraduate)