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What are public universities doing to expand mental health care access in Utah?

Buildings at Southern Utah University in Southern Utah University are shown on Wednesday, Oct. 21, 2020.
Buildings at Southern Utah University in Southern Utah University are shown on Wednesday, Oct. 21, 2020. SUU will offer its first doctorate program, a doctor of psychology in clinical psychology, starting in fall 2022.
Ravell Call, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — In a state with growing mental health care needs and fewer mental health providers per 100,000 people than the national average, there is a clear need to increase the provider pool.

Two public universities in Utah plan to launch graduate programs to help address the shortage, which is particularly acute in rural Utah, according to an updated report by the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute at the University of Utah.

Starting in fall 2022, Southern Utah University will offer its first doctorate program, a doctor of psychology in clinical psychology.

The Utah Board of Higher Education gave final approval of the new program on Friday. The program will prepare students to practice psychotherapy and psychological testing. The Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities, SUU’s regional accreditation agency, must also approve the program.

SUU Provost Jon Anderson said university officials believe the doctorate program will make a significant difference in people’s lives.

“Graduates of this program will provide greater access to mental health care, particularly in rural Utah. The faculty have been working toward this degree for many years and are prepared to deliver a high quality curriculum. We look forward to the good this program will do,” Anderson said in a statement.

Weber State University recently announced it will launch a new master’s program in social work, building on its undergraduate program, which produces 50-75 social workers each academic year. The graduate program will start in fall 2021.

Weber State will be the fourth Utah public university to offer a Master of Social Work, joining Utah State University, University of Utah and Utah Valley University.

Mark Bigler, professor and chairman of Weber State’s Department of Social Work and Gerontology, said the program will focus on clinical social work practice, spending more time training students to provide therapy than generalist programs.

“It gives graduates from our master’s program a bit of a leg up in a growing area of demand,” Bigler said in a statement.

Even before the pandemic, much of the United States was experiencing a shortage of behavioral health workers.

According to the American Medical Association, 1 in 5 adults suffers from a mental health condition or substance use disorder. Due to provider shortages and stigma there has been a “mismatch in prevalence” of these conditions and the proportion of people who receive effective treatment.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed and magnified the flaws in our mental health system and the true burden of mental illness in our country,” said AMA President Dr. Patrice A. Harris.

According to the Gardner Policy Institute report, more than half of Utah adults with mental illness do not receive mental health treatment or counseling. Suicide is a leading cause of death for Utahns ages 10-24.

Weber State’s clinical focus was selected in collaboration with community partners that have difficulty filling clinical positions that require a master’s degree.

Kevin Eastman, executive director of Weber Human Services, said social work is the preferred discipline because both Medicaid and Medicare accept those credentials.

“Currently, I have six vacancies, and I can’t fill them because there’s nobody out there with the appropriate education looking for work,” Eastman said in a statement.

“The shortage in the field is more than just trying to create access to treatment by filling positions. We need well-educated graduates who are ready to learn even more when they step into the real world,” he said.

SUU President Scott Wyatt said the university’s inaugural doctorate degree will be launched the same year the university observes its 125th year of providing higher education in the region.

“Just as important, this new program will help solve a problem found in rural Utah and throughout the country — the availability of mental health practitioners,” Wyatt said in a statement.

Elsewhere, Dixie State University plans to graduate its first cohort of seven students in its marriage and family therapy master’s program this spring. Another seven started the program this fall.

In recent years, the University of Utah School of Medicine has been adding new psychiatric residency slots to help address Utah’s mental health care needs.

In 2019, the Huntsman family committed $150 million to the U. to establish the Huntsman Mental Health Institute. The gift provides financial support to the University of Utah Department of Psychiatry with the goal of it becoming a national leader in research, clinical care and community outreach.