Q&A: Opportunities and Challenges Related to Behavioral Health
For years, the country’s behavioral-health needs have been on the rise. Workforce and funding shortages have been exacerbated by decreasing stigma — and hence increasing demand — around mental health.
Kiara Kuenzler (PsyD '08), an alumna of the Graduate School of Professional Psychology, is president and CEO of the Jefferson Center, a community-focused nonprofit organization providing mental health care and substance-use services. The center delivers care in the community in the least restrictive environment utilizing the community’s support. Its clinical workforce provides prevention education and counseling, 24/7 intensive crisis services, individual and family therapy, and services that address overall well-being, such as assistance with housing, employment and benefits.
Kuenzler, who practiced direct clinical work for a number of years before moving into administrative roles in community mental health, spoke with the DU Newsroom about the challenges the industry faces and the opportunities for students entering the behavioral-health field. The conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
How has demand for mental health care changed over the past couple of years?
Over the last couple of years, the need for mental health has increased dramatically. Behavioral health has been undervalued for decades. There has been a growing awareness of the importance of behavioral health and decreasing stigma around mental health over the past decade. But the last two years have really normalized the human experience of mental health challenges, with more than half the people in this country experiencing symptoms of depression and anxiety. That is just a huge recognition of the impact that mental health has on our population and in the lives of so many of us. The recognition is there, the stigma has decreased, and we realize how critically important it is to focus on that if we want to achieve overall well-being.
Even if the realization is there, how challenging is it if the support is not there to help individuals?
There is such a powerful impact on outcomes when people are able to access care when they are ready. When someone is at that point of readiness but then needs to wait, it is incredibly impactful in terms of their sense of hopefulness about getting through it. Sometimes when you don’t catch people when they are ready, you miss the window, and they give up on seeking care altogether.
The challenge we face right now is that the behavioral-health system and field have been undervalued for a long time. People have not been incentivized to come into the field. We obtain higher education and take on student loan debt because we want to make an impact, but we know that it’s hard to come into this field and take on that amount of debt given the salaries associated with these roles. We have a long way to go in terms of incentivizing people to come into the field to meet the needs of the problems we are facing.
What would be one of the best ways to incentivize more people to get involved in behavioral health?
The idea of loan forgiveness is critical. To pursue a degree in this field, I took on an enormous amount of debt, and that can be overwhelming and daunting, particularly for a student who might not have family support or access to other resources. Another idea is tuition assistance for people wanting to obtain higher degrees in behavioral health, particularly for a more diverse workforce. Also, how can we have more support and funding for paid internships that are part of a degree program, so students can work as they are earning their degrees.
How valuable is it for students to intern within community mental health and be exposed to the range of available career opportunities?
Internships are an invaluable way to explore different aspects of this field and see what you connect with. Internships within community mental health centers are incredible because of the flexibility and breadth of the training. You can do a rotation in our 24/7 walk-in center and experience what it’s like to interact in a crisis space. You can do a rotation in child and family services and see what that feels like. You can do a rotation that is focused on community-based care — on offering behavioral-health services in homeless shelters or doing street outreach or working in a domestic violence shelter. There is such a breadth of different experiences that you are able to get in one internship to really figure out what you are drawn to in the field and where you can make the biggest impact.
What is your message to students entering this field and eager to help those struggling with behavioral-health issues?
For me, there is something about being connected to a broader mission and knowing that you are really making a powerful impact in people’s lives. There is a sense of making an impact both on the personal one-on-one level with that kid, that adult, that family you are working with, but also this sense of a broader community impact by creating wellness across an entire community through the systems work that we do. It is incredibly rewarding to be part of a network of community partners working together to problem-solve around meeting the needs of people in the community.