Opening Doors

June 8, 2018 / By: Amy Carlson Gustafson for June 2018 Perspectives
Photo of rural MN for Opening Doors Article in June 2018 Perspectives

In response to the increasing need of access to mental health services, the St. Catherine University – University of St. Thomas Master of Social Work program has introduced two new initiatives aimed at reducing the mental health workforce gap. Both programs seek to expand the number of MSW graduates with clinical training and licensure to work with underserved populations throughout the region.

“Meeting the population health needs in your state requires a functioning workforce pipeline to get people into the workforce, trained as they need to be trained, and then be out there providing services that are effective to meet the diverse populations, whether it’s cultural diversity or geographic diversity,” said Lisa Richardson, director of MSW Field Education.

When it comes to the mental health workforce gap, almost two-thirds of all social workers in Minnesota are working in the Minneapolis-St. Paul region, according to a 2014-2015 survey from the Minnesota Department of Health. In rural or isolated areas, there are more than twice as many residents for every social worker compared to urban or micropolitan areas. While it’s estimated one-third of Twin Cities working-age adults will be people of color by 2020, the survey shows 92 percent of social workers identify as “white.”

With the support of the Health Professional Clinical Training Expansion Grant from the Minnesota Department of Health, the MSW program has launched the Clinical Social Work Expansion Project (CSWEP). It’s aimed at expanding the health care workforce in underserved communities by addressing educational, clinical training and licensing barriers.

“The Minnesota Department of Health put out a call for clinical training expansion grants,” Richardson said. “They asked us what we would do differently if we had some money to expand the number of trainees we have and population they’re serving – trying to do anything to expand the workforce. We designed CSWEP, a program we think will have good success. It’s multifaceted because you can’t just approach a systemic problem from one angle. With our design, we’re approaching it from multiple angles.”

Helping the underserved

The CSWEP grant will support 16 students over three years. It includes a monetary stipend for students; travel support for rural students; LGSW licensure exam preparation; and supervision of post-MSW clinical practice.

“We targeted several underserved groups that were identified in the Governor’s Task Force on Mental Health report,” Richardson said, “seeking to enhance services in areas that were the best fit for the strengths that were already in our program.”

The underserved groups targeted by CSWEP include immigrants, refugees and underserved minority populations; rural Minnesota communities; active and veteran military members and their families; and communities served by free primary care/integrated care clinics and federally qualified health centers.

The program prioritizes counties and areas with the fewest number of social workers. Grant funds will also pay for external clinical social work supervision for students placed in these target settings.

“This is super exciting,” Richardson said. “There have been many times over the years where doors we wanted to open have been shut because we didn’t have the right resources. Now we do.”

There’s also a pay-it-forward aspect to the program, Richardson said.

“It’s not uncommon for MSW students to get hired into agencies where they do a practicum,” she said. “Our hope is that the CSWEP students will get hired by the agencies with whom they did the practicum and then we’ll support them in the steps to that independent licensure. Then they’ll be able to turn around and host other trainees a few years down the road when they get their own clinical license.”

New Hybrid MSW

For 15 years, the St. Kate’s – St. Thomas MSW program offered a weekend cohort distance learning option, mainly for working professionals who want personal connections and opportunities for in-depth discussions, but can’t make it to campus for “traditional” weekday/evening courses. Starting in June, the new Hybrid MSW will provide even greater access for students pursuing clinical social work education. It will increase the online component of the distance learning program and reduce the on-campus time requirements, while still maintaining meaningful face-to-face opportunities.

“If you’re focusing on mental health training, St. Kate’s – St. Thomas has a long-standing reputation for rigor when it comes to clinical preparation,” weekend cohort field coordinator Tanya Rand said. “Students in outstate Minnesota have said, ‘We could have done it online with another school, but we wanted to come to you because of your strong clinical preparation and outstanding field education support.’

Others said they’d love to come here, but they couldn’t because the way the program was designed was not accessible to them. We’re taking the solid program foundation we have in our clinical preparation and matching it with opportunity based on a more flexible pathway – an easier-to-reach format.”

Not only does the Hybrid MSW benefit working students, it expands workforce development and education pathways for students in outstate Minnesota and beyond. Students will come to campus just three Saturdays during each semester. The rest of the program is delivered online with the help of St. Thomas E-Learning and Research (STELAR) center, which supports faculty and students with technology-enhanced instruction.

“With this hybrid option, we’re saying, ‘We’re not going to get rid of our face-to-face interactive model that we so strongly feel is an important part of our pedagogy, but we are going to tweak, monitor and adjust what we can’,” Rand said. “So the face-to-face contact that you have is what we feel you absolutely need.”

Rand said that by increasing access to education through the Hybrid MSW program for students in Greater Minnesota, she hopes the number of social workers in those areas will eventually increase, too.

“When I look at some of my hardest-to-place students in internships, it’s students in counties with fewer Licensed Independent Clinical Social Workers (LICSWs). Students need to have a LICSW supervisor and there’s not enough of them, so it can be hard. We’re struggling with placement opportunities in certain geographical regions of Minnesota. However, if we can train a student, then they can stay there and can help build up the number of LICSWs in their area ... hopefully it’s going to keep snowballing. We have to be able to make those connections and partnerships, and those aren’t going to happen unless there’s availability and creative programing. The Hybrid MSW coupled with CSWEP grant opportunities will be important levers in this process.”

Read online version of June 2018 Perspectives magazine