Report recommends $128 million ‘down payment’ to train thousands more mental health care workers in San Diego
San Diego’s significantly undersized mental health care workforce is underpaid compared to peers in other California markets and is so burnt out dealing with broken bureaucratic paperwork requirements that 44 percent of current workers say they may seek different jobs in the next 12 months.
Those are the main observations of a new report compiled by San Diego Workforce Partnership, which surveyed nearly 1,600 local behavioral health workers. Their responses, combined with plenty of statistics and peer-reviewed research, paint a sobering picture of an industry estimated to serve more than 400,000 county residents per year.
Requested by Nathan Fletcher, chair of the county board of supervisors, during his 2021 state of the county speech, the report was jointly commissioned by the County of San Diego Health and Human Services Agency and Alliance Healthcare Foundation.
Using the most recent federal estimates of local mental health care use and data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics as a baseline, researchers calculated that the roughly 17,000 people already working in mental health-related fields across San Diego County is about 48 percent short of the 25,109 needed today. The report also found that the need for these workers will continue to grow, surpassing 27,000 by 2027.
Taking the current turnover rate into account, the report estimates that San Diego County will need nearly 18,500 more behavioral health workers by 2027, a number that is more than 1,000 workers greater than the estimated size of the region’s entire current workforce.
There are some caveats included in the methodology used, namely that not everyone who technically needs mental health help will necessarily come forward to accept that help. But the workforce estimates nonetheless reveal the order of magnitude of the problem in more detail than ever before described, at least in San Diego, and likely in any major metropolitan region.
Solving a problem this large will require the collective effort of myriad organizations inside and outside government and will require squeezing more from dollars already being spent and also many millions more in additional funding.
In other words, this report calls for an absolute revolution in the way mental health is provided in San Diego.
The sheer scale of the problem, said Dr. Luke Bergmann, director of behavioral health in San Diego County, has been clearly visible for decades, with the overall marginalization and stigmatization of those who need mental health care.
“If it tempts credulity, good, it ought to,” Bergmann said. “It should be a moment of grounding in the reality of the massive change that needs to happen.”
Fletcher said he knows that there will be skeptics, and he knows the current plan will need to change as the understanding of the problem further deepens with additional scrutiny, but added that he believes it’s possible to make big changes at a moment when mental health needs spill out onto city streets in homeless camps, strain hospital emergency departments and overwhelm treatment programs.
“I think we can be idealistic about making it better without being under any illusion that it’s going to be easy,” Fletcher said. “Not everything in here is going to get addressed right away, but if we’re not honest about where we need to go, then we can’t make the substantive progress that people who use these services count on.”
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