NEOMED and Pavliga take steps to solve Ohio’s psychiatric workforce shortage

Summa Health and NEOMED partnered together the Rootstown Medical Center. Asha Blake/ The Portager.

State Senator Theresa Gavarone (R-Bowling Green) and State Rep. Gail Pavliga (R-Portage County) teamed up Oct. 13 to unveil legislation creating a new licensed mental health professional designation called a certified mental health assistant.

Anticipating the new credential, NEOMED plans to roll out an intensive 24-month certified mental health assistant program, with graduates able to prescribe medications as they work alongside physicians.

Gavarone said she and Pavlliga intend to introduce the bill on Oct. 17 and are prepared to see it through after newly elected legislators are seated in January 2023.

Should the bill pass, graduates from NEOMED’s program — and perhaps similar ones across the state — would need to commit to practicing in Ohio. To be admitted, candidates would need to be at least 21 years old and have a bachelor’s degree, likely in biology, chemistry, psychology or a related field.

Unlike physicians assistants and advanced practice registered nurses, graduates would be limited to work in the mental health field.

During a press briefing on the announcement, Gavarone related an incident involving a suicidal young man who was taken to jail because police said at least there he could not kill himself.  She said he was later diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

“How can we do things better, to make sure that people in crisis, people in need can get into a qualified health professional in a timely manner?” she asked. “We know how untreated mental illness can really spiral out of control and we can end up with really bad outcomes.”

Gavarone said she teamed up with Pavliga, who is vice chair of the Behavioral Health and Recovery Supports Committee in the House. Pavliga approached NEOMED to craft a solution.

“It’s one thing to be able to say, ‘Yes, we should do this.’ It’s another thing to say, ‘How do we take the next steps to actually be able to provide training and the ability to to put more people, boots on the ground, to be able to assist with mental health needs,’” Pavliga said.

The stats on mental health care workforce shortages are chilling.

NEOMED President John Langell noted that in 2018 Ohio had only about half the psychiatric workforce the state needed, and 20% of them left the workforce when the pandemic hit.

“So that number is likely closer to about 30% of our current needs,” Langell said. “And we expect that to diminish even more by 2030, based on the projections. Opioid abuse and opioid overdose deaths are all-time high. Suicide rates have skyrocketed. Over 25% of our citizens suffer from behavioral health conditions every year.”

NEOMED Psychiatry Chair Dr. Randon Welton noted that the nation needs 15,000-30,000 more psychiatrists. It takes five to six weeks to schedule a first appointment.

“What is happening is that the people who need our help most are either getting no care, prison care or primary care,” he said. “Primary care is wonderful. They are working very, very hard, but they are overwhelmed and they are already strained, and they, too, are understaffed.”

One in five people experience mental health issues every year. Mental health disorders are the leading cause of death among youth aged 10-14. Fully one-third of African Americans between the ages of 18 and 30 have considered suicide, and the pandemic has made everything worse, said NAMI Ohio Executive Director Luke Russell. 

“What we do know is there’s a 353% increase in demand for services from 2013 to 2019. The amount of workforce increased 174%. And in Ohio, we have about 1,200 psychiatrists. That’s one for every 10,000 people and 50% of these psychiatrists are over the age of 60. So what we see is we have this need, and people are leaving the workforce,” Russell said.

Russell said he once fielded a phone call from a man who had called 10 psychiatric practices for his grandson and finally got an appointment after nine weeks. Three weeks later the grandson died by suicide.

Relating his own struggles to find mental health treatment for a family member, Russell said, “We’ve got to do better because if I can’t find the right treatment for medications for one of my family members, I guarantee you Joe Smith, who’s a plumber and his wife’s a teacher and they’re doing everything right and they have a crisis, they need help. So you know, we believe again this is a model in a solution and it’s one solution.” 

If approved, NEOMED’s new program is one solution, he said. Instead of a four-year psychiatry training program, certified mental health assistants would be qualified in half the time.

Welton said he anticipates about 40 students per class, though the inaugural class, which would not take their seats for three or four years, will likely be closer to 20. Statewide, he is hoping for 100 students per year. Given the way legislative and academic wheels turn, the first class is not expected to take its seats for three or four years.

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Wendy DiAlesandro is a former Record Publishing Co. reporter and contributing writer for The Portager.