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Northeast Ohio mental health agencies say staff shortages are hindering their ability to help people with behavioral and substance abuse issues

United Way of Greater Cleveland
A forum on Thursday will discuss how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted access to behavioral health services.

Northeast Ohio behavioral health agencies are understaffed and that’s leading to long wait times between appointments for people seeking help with mental health and addiction issues.

Low pay for many of the positions is one of the reasons it's hard to find people to fill the roles, said Brittain Paul, chief operating officer of Ravenwood Health, a behavioral health services organization in Geauga County.

“You go and you get a master’s and then you come out and I think the pay for these types of positions are less," she said.

Demand in Ohio for behavioral healthcare services has outstripped supply, increasing by more than 350% between 2013 and 2019, according to a 2021 report by the state’s Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services (OhioMHAS). The number of healthcare providers increased by only 174% over the same period.

The lack of staff creates a vicious cycle. The employees working in behavioral health agencies have higher caseloads. This can cause burnout and lead to a higher turnover rate.

“We have probably eight therapist positions currently advertised, and we’re lucky to get one person to apply in a two-week period," Paul said.

MetroHealth announced it will hold a hiring event Friday for its new Outpatient and Inpatient Behavioral Health Hospital slated to open this fall.

The event will be held from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the MetroHealth Cleveland Heights Medical Center on Severance Circle in Cleveland Heights.

"We are looking for qualified individuals who are committed to providing excellent care to behavioral health patients," according to a hospital media release.

The United Way of Greater Cleveland will host a virtual community conversation Thursday, May 19 from 6:00-7:15 p.m., focusing on the Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Mental Health and Substance Use, Access to Care, and Treatment. Registration is free.

A panel of experts will discuss COVID's impact on community mental health and substance use, service delivery opportunities and barriers, and policy strategies at the local and state levels to adequately address the ongoing behavioral health needs of the communities.

Ohio Governor Mike DeWine announced a plan last week to spend $85 million in federal funding to increase the number of behavioral healthcare providers amid a shortfall driven by increased demand.

The funding will be used to make education more attainable and affordable by enhancing paid internships and scholarship opportunities for students studying behavioral health at Ohio’s two- and four-year colleges and universities and other educational career development settings, according to a media release.

“The health and success of Ohio’s families and communities depends on our ability to recruit, train, and retain the best talent to ensure Ohio has the most robust behavioral health workforce possible,” said DeWine. “Behavioral health care workers are a valued and vital part of our healthcare system, and our efforts today are focused on helping to quickly infuse more qualified professionals into behavioral health care workplaces throughout the state. I look forward to working with the General Assembly, Ohio’s providers, and our colleges and universities on this innovative plan.”

More than 20% of Ohioans — nearly 2.4 million people — live with a mental health condition or a substance use disorder, according to the release.

“The lack of trained, qualified professionals is the number one concern we hear from mental health and addiction providers around Ohio,” said OhioMHAS Director Lori Criss. “This problem is not unique to our state, but we have a unique opportunity to create pathways to recruit new talent into our rapidly growing field of healthcare. ”