If you or a loved one receives mental health care in Alabama, this essential care may be provided by a community mental health provider.

Community-based mental health providers serve the vast majority of Alabamians who receive state care for mental illness, addictions and intellectual disabilities.

It is critical that we continue to offer these services in community settings that are most cost-effective and accessible to those who need them. But as the leader of an organization that represents 20 of these providers, I can tell you that our important work is at stake.

If the state does not make the necessary investments that allow our mental health system to keep pace with rising costs and, in particular, the rising costs of recruiting and retaining staff, the services we offer our communities will be affected. Without mental health professionals and direct care workers, we cannot do our work. It’s as simple as that.

Recognizing this reality, the Alabama Department of Mental Health has requested $30.6 million in additional funding from the state’s next budget to meet these staffing needs. Mental health providers in our community urge the Alabama Legislature to fully fund this request – in the interest of the individuals and communities we serve.

Our providers offer a wide range of services for people across the lifespan — everything from outpatient mental health counseling to inpatient care; From day programs to group homes for people with developmental disabilities; and from court-ordered drug monitoring to residential substance abuse programs. These are needs that, if not met, have dire consequences for our families and our communities

But as it stands, the state funding we receive does not allow us to pay competitive salaries in today’s hyper-competitive healthcare workforce environment. Our direct care workers start at an average of $12 an hour – less than what many chain stores and fast-food restaurants are paying. On average, our master’s level mental health professionals make less than a bachelor’s level teacher. It is easy for our employees to leave us for comparable jobs and increase their annual salary by $10,000 to $20,000 or more.

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Although the state has made significant investments in specific areas of mental health services in recent years, fundamental workforce issues faced by community mental health providers have worsened. It’s the same story for mental health providers stretching from Shoals to Wiregrass, Mentone to Mobile, and all points in between.

Almost one in five of our provider jobs are currently vacant. Vacancies have increased by more than 50 percent since the end of 2020 We would not be able to maintain the current services without those who are the heart and hands and feet of our mission

Most Alabamians know all too well why this is important.

The federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration reports that between 2017 and 2019, a staggering 41 percent of Alabama adults sought treatment for mental health problems.

Yet, according to 2023 data from Mental Health America, Alabama ranks near the bottom for access to mental health care. Only Texas ranks worse than us on this list. This is based on several factors including unmet demand, uninsured population and importantly, workforce availability.

On the workforce availability front, we rank last. Our state’s residents outnumber mental health practitioners 850 to 1. Nationally, the ratio is 350 to 1. This presents a huge gap between demand and our ability to meet those demands.

If we don’t address this issue, we will have to make tough choices about whether to consolidate or cut services so that we can pay competitive wages to attract and retain our teams.

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Job shortages have already had an impact in recent years. Caseloads for mental health clinicians continue to grow as demand far exceeds the system’s capacity to serve, and people sometimes have to wait months for an appointment. Forty-two agencies operating 140 settings and serving 1,012 people with intellectual disabilities and developmental disabilities closed due to workforce issues. As you can see, our services are at risk when mental health providers are understaffed like this severely

To be sure, this $30.6 million in new investment is only part of the solution. We must build a better pipeline of people who are trained to meet the mental health needs of Alabamians. But it doesn’t matter how many people we train if we don’t have enough money to hire mental health providers.

We’re asking Alabama lawmakers to help make our mental health work – by ensuring that community mental health providers can pay competitive salaries and retain the staff they need to meet the needs of our communities.

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