Legislation seeks to increase mental health workers by forgiving student debt

(Leah Hogsten | Tribune file photo) In this April, 27, 2019, file photo, walkers and runners travel from Tooele to Wendover on a frontage road paralleling Interstate 80 during a Life's Worth Living Foundation fundraiser. The event was created to raise awareness surrounding suicide and funds to continue suicide prevention efforts.

Midvale • Utah officials say more people are suffering depression and suicidal thoughts during the pandemic — and more also are reaching out for help. But, there’s a problem: Utah has a big shortage of counselors, psychiatrists and other mental health professionals to help them.

“We have absolutely seen an increase in calls to the lifeline and calls for services. But again, what are we going to do when we don’t have anywhere to send people?” asked Taryn Hiatt, Utah area director for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

“When I am in a mental health crisis and having thoughts of suicide, that is the same as if I was having a heart attack and being told I need to wait for weeks on end to be able to see somebody,” she added. “It’s just not acceptable.”

Barbara Cryer is just one of two behavioral health specialists at Utah Partners for Health, which helps low-income people, and says the organization’s caseload is at capacity. “A lot of people in our community go weeks or even months just waiting on a waitlist before getting the service they so desperately need.”

So they joined Rep. Ben McAdams, D-Utah, at a news conference at Utah Partners for Health in Midvale on Tuesday seeking support for legislation that would help produce more mental health professionals by offering to forgive their student loans if they work six years in rural or low-income areas.

McAdams is a co-sponsor in the House of that Mental Health Professionals Workforce Shortage Loan Repayment Act. Sen. Kamala Harris, the Democratic vice presidential nominee, is the sponsor of an identical bill in the Senate. Neither bill has yet had a hearing, and passage this year is considered a long shot.

Still, “We need more workers,” McAdams said. “The need is even greater in Utah’s underserved communities, including in low-income and rural areas.” He said the bill would remove financial barriers that may prevent more people from entering the field, or from working in rural or low-income areas.

For example, Cryer said the typical counselor like her amasses about $30,000 in student debt, and then works at a job that pays about $45,000 a year.

“This bill will encourage more people to go into the field of mental health, and it will also encourage more mental health and behavioral health workers to work in low income and rural communities,” she said.

McAdams added, “Mental health issues like depression, anxiety and thoughts of suicide are real problems that more and more Utahns are facing, particularly during this time when we are all dealing with the stress of living through a pandemic.”

He noted that the Centers for Disease Control released a nationwide study last month that found 41% of respondents reported mental health symptoms as a result of COVID-19 pressures.

Also, a study by the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute at the University of Utah said last year before the pandemic that demands in Utah for mental health are increasing, and a shortage in mental health providers could worsen over time.

Editor’s note: If you or people you know are at risk of self-harm, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline provides 24-hour support at 1-800-273-8255.