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$1.9 million grant aims to increase Georgia's behavioral health workforce

Kristen B. Morales

January 18, 2018

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Students studying counseling and psychology at the University of Georgia easily overcome one challenge of the program: Learning to provide integrated medicine, the new "gold standard" in care.

Another hurdle is harder to overcome: The financial burden students must assume during their final year, when they complete their required internship. This on-site training, usually at a local clinic or medical provider, is crucial but often unpaid.

But thanks to a new four-year, $1.9 million grant from a division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, many students completing this training will receive a stipend to support themselves during their internship year. This grant, which will help train students to deliver counseling, health psychology and integrated behavioral health services, is now available to students entering the UGA College of Education's master's programs in community counseling and school counseling, as well as the doctoral program in counseling psychology.

Ultimately, the grant offers a chance for more students to receive training in integrated behavioral health fields and contribute to a growing workforce need across Georgia and the country.

"Right now, students who complete their master's or doctoral training in our psychology and counseling programs are not financially supported during their practicum or internship," said Bernadette Heckman, associate professor of counseling psychology and principal investigator of the grant. "This grant allows us to support our students as they receive their training."

The stipend ranges from $10,000 for a master's-level student to $28,000 for a student in the doctoral program. It allows students to focus on their training rather than take on a second job, she said.

This grant is similar to a $1.3 million grant Heckman received four years ago to train school counselors. This new funding, which includes faculty members Georgia Calhoun and Jolie Daigle as co-principal investigators, enables the team to expand training across more graduate programs and include community health care settings and K-12 schools throughout 13 counties in Northeast Georgia.

Thanks to the funding, master's and doctoral students will face fewer financial barriers as they continue their education. "This external funding will financially support both master's and doctoral students which is a helpful tool for recruitment," said Daigle. "The leading-edge integrated and behavioral health training they receive helps them best serve youth and adults in school, community and medical settings."

The goal of the College of Education's counseling and psychology programs is to train students to work in an environment that provides both physical and behavioral health care. A key community partner in this program is the Athens-based Mercy Health Center, a nonprofit clinic serving uninsured patients in the area. At Mercy, patients meet with a physician and behavioral health provider during their primary care visit, and care encompasses both physical and mental health issues.

"When we started working with Mercy, we wanted to bring a more holistic approach to health care, which was consistent with their mission of care," said Heckman. "It's enabled us to identify and deliver integrated care that meets the needs of the patient, while providing much-needed services that give back to the community. This federal grant now allows us to support this important service-learning opportunity."

Other internship opportunities include school and community counseling settings as well as a partnership with the Georgia Department of Public Health and UGA's College of Public Health to deliver telehealth services—another emerging integrated health care specialty—to patients in rural regions of Georgia federally designated as "health shortage areas." A similar partnership provides telehealth services through the Athens-based Live Forward organization and similar AIDS-focused organizations in Atlanta.

The grant also involves a research component, which evaluates the training received and follows counselors for two years after they receive their degree. So far, using data collected from training school counselors, Heckman says the College's model is working. She expects to see similar strong results going forward, as more students are able to earn degrees thanks to the stipend.

"We know empirically that integrated models of care are the most effective," she said. "There is a lot of evidence for this kind of health care approach, so it is ideal for our students to be trained in it. It can be challenging and not everyone in this profession receives this type of training—but our students do, and that's going to be one of their many strengths."

For more information, please contact the following faculty members: