Hansen Foundation, High Plains Mental Health Center partner for fellowship program

HPMHC extension

He saw the needs and wanted to better serve his community. But without financial assistance, Meriah Escarcega said she would not have been able to go back to school or pursue her career as an outpatient therapist.

Thanks to a grant from the Dane G. Hansen Foundation, Logan, Kan., Meriah and three other staff members of the High Plains Mental Health Center were able to take advanced courses at Fort Hays State University. The opportunity comes at a critical time when more people are seeking behavioral health care, but a national workforce shortage makes it difficult for rural agencies to hire and retain skilled mental health professionals.

Meriah completed a Masters of Social Work training program at FHSU in May and is expected to begin working as a bilingual outpatient therapist at High Plains Mental Health Center later this summer.

I think this program is an amazing opportunity and is likely to play a big role in why HPMHC employees will decide to further their education because of the financial stress it could bring, Escarcega said. I am so grateful to have been given this option and hope it continues to be offered to other employees for the benefit of HPMHC and our customers.

The Dane G. Hansen Foundation, Logan, awarded a two-year grant to HPMHC with the specific purpose of growing the region’s behavioral health workforce through advanced education at FHSU. This grant program expired in May 2023.

A total of four staff members have received assistance from the fellowship program and all will join the HPMHC workforce as clinical therapists.

Two of the new therapists (Escarcega and Carmen Morales-Hernandez) are bilingual, making Spanish-language therapy services available at HPMHC for the first time. Morales-Hernandez graduated with her MSW in May 2022 and is currently accepting new clients.

Both are passionate about reducing stigma and improving access to Spanish-speaking and culturally competent mental health services for the growing Hispanic/Latino communities in the regions. Bilingual therapy services are now available on-site in Hays or via telehealth to all residents within the 20 counties served by High Plains Mental Health Center. A degressive rate is available and customers are not denied services based on inability to pay.

I like making a difference in people’s lives and building that sense of hope for change, Morales-Hernandez said. It’s a gratifying feeling when you know the work you do with clients is making a difference in their lives.

Recruiting professionals from other areas has always been challenging for rural agencies, and High Plains has long recognized the importance of an approach to its growing workforce, said Walt Hill, executive director. Many staff members begin their careers in entry-level service positions that require a high school diploma or college degree, then decide they want to advance their careers in mental health services.

Investing in established local professionals is a win-win, because those with ties to the area are usually more likely to stay in Northwest Kansas long-term, Hill said. The Hansen Scholarship program was only available to students taking advanced courses at FHSU, which also benefited the region’s only four-year university.

We are so grateful for the Hansen Foundation’s support in helping us expand the workforce to address the growing need for mental health services, Hill said. We work very hard to support our people in advancing their career goals and are delighted to have been able to invest in four bright young professionals who are committed to working and living in Northwest Kansas.

A third Hansen scholar, Mandy Stock, is expected to begin working as an outpatient therapist at the Phillipsburg branch later this summer.

Stock, Escarcega, and Morales-Hernandez all had extensive experience working as recovery specialists (case managers) and serving clients in northwest Kansas. A fourth staff member has begun the clinical psychology program at FHSU and is expected to graduate in 2024. The additional workforce comes at a critical time, as needs for mental health services have increased locally and nationally.

High Plains Mental Health Center served a record 7,149 individual clients in 2022. Evidence suggests that 1 in 5 adults in the United States and 1 in 6 young people will experience mental illness in any given year. Additionally, the World Health Organization has reported that the COVID-19 pandemic has significantly increased the prevalence of anxiety, depression and substance use worldwide.

People are also likely to feel more comfortable turning to mental health services, as stigma begins to diminish and more people are willing to think and talk about their mental health, Hill said.

Mental health care is health care and it is important to reach out to you if you are struggling. There’s help available wherever you are, and there’s hope, Hill said. We are proud to serve Northwest Kansas and appreciate your support of our mission to expand access to quality health care.

High Plains Mental Health Center is a licensed community mental health center and certified community behavioral health clinic dedicated to the aggressive pursuit of providing a comprehensive mental health program to residents of Northwestern Kansas. Embedded in this quest are the core principles of establishing quality services as close to home as possible, at an affordable rate, and delivered in the least disruptive way available. Such services will offer a continuum of care so that treatment can be personalized and our staff can respond quickly and with compassion to those who reach out to us. We are here for you!

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