At Issue: Serving Those Most in Need

The imperative to train mental health professionals

ArmisteadNot uncommonly, I receive calls from Georgians seeking psychological services for themselves or for their children. Given that I have spent most of my life in Atlanta and the past 15 years in GSU’s Department of Psychology, I am routinely discouraged by how few referrals I can offer due to a shortage of trained professionals. The explanation for this scarcity is complex, but the problem is not insurmountable.

Mental disorders afflict between 20 and 35 percent of adults and one in five children. The numbers are staggering; still, many are surprised to learn that mental disorders are the leading cause of disability in this country. Less surprising are the unprecedented gains in knowledge about the brain and human behavior that have occurred over the last decade. These gains have compelled impressive advances in the science of understanding mental disorders and the development of effective treatments.

GSU’s researchers routinely contribute to the basic science that underlies our understanding of mental disorders, as well as the evidence base that allows their effective treatment. Our scientists are also among those calling for increased access to care for people living with a mental disorder and for attention to the socioeconomic and racial disparities that exist in access to care. Estimates indicate that only 30 percent of those in need of mental health care receive it. We must ensure that prevention and treatment become more available. Providing high caliber, scientifically driven training for mental health care providers is a clear step in that direction.

A recent award to faculty in the Clinical Psychology Program is one of those steps. Lindsey Cohen, Frank Floyd and Aki Masuda received Department of Health and Human Services funding through the Graduate Psychology Education (GPE) Program to train students to work with disadvantaged populations at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. As part of their doctoral training program, these students address psychosocial concerns associated with having a chronic medical condition – concerns that, without more trained professionals, extend well beyond available services. In 2010, the total federal funding made available to the GPE Program’s approximately 30 funded programs was $3 million, and the GPE is the only federal program dedicated exclusively to psychology education and training. Although trainees access other funding sources, most leave graduate school obligated to repay student loans in amounts that challenge their ability to work with the most marginalized and economically disadvantaged.

Financial support for training is critical; however, also important is training that prepares providers to work with an increasingly diverse population. One size does not fit all, and professionals must be steeped in the awareness, knowledge and skills necessary to provide culturally competent services to those who suffer.

I eagerly await the day I can answer calls for help with a long list of well-qualified mental health care providers.

Lisa Armistead is professor and Chair of the Department of Psychology