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L.A. County tries to hire mental health workers, fast

$18,500 scholarship to offset graduate school tuition. Student loan forgiveness. Free on-the-job training. All license fees have been paid. and an opportunity to serve underserved populations “with dignity.”

The Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health’s new marketing campaign, “Do Worthwhile Work,” highlights these benefits on its website in hopes that job seekers will understand the benefits of public sector mental health work and will apply. ing.

“Your work can change lives,” the campaign says. “Go home today better than you expected. There’s a place for you at LA County DMH.”

In fact, in many places: As of mid-September, the agency had a vacancy rate of 28%, 1,890 vacant positions and just over 4,800 employees, according to county data.

For decades, this sector no marketing campaign needed Or, people may apply for a job because there are too many perks. But in recent years, the nation’s largest county mental health department has seen a decline in applicants.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, demand for mental health workers was already outstripping supply. Many people in California were retiring, and master’s programs and medical schools were not producing enough therapists, psychologists, and psychiatrists to replace them or meet the growing demand. . According to recent research About state behavioral health workers.

If trends continue, California is projected to have a shortage of 5,000 mental health workers by 2026. According to research By consulting firm Mercer.

Cristina Rodriguez, a psychiatric social worker, counsels clients via video call at the East San Gabriel Valley Mental Health Center.

(Irrfan Khan/Los Angeles Times)

Demand is only increasing as more Americans than ever seek treatment amid the uncertainty and misery brought on by the coronavirus pandemic. New therapists who would traditionally have started their careers in the public sector are being hired by private companies offering bonuses, flexible schedules and remote work. Others are suffering but have no housing or are suffering from acute psychosis that has worsened over many years. life outside.

Internally, the Department of Mental Health has yet to recover from an 18-month countywide hiring freeze that the Board of Supervisors implemented early in the pandemic to save money amid the disaster. As a result, many important management positions became vacant. And because of civil service rules governing how hiring is done, it can still take several months to get hired by the county.

Of the 103 people the department hired in August, it took an average of 227 days for candidates to start work after they submitted their applications.

The department’s vacancies are hampering progress in addressing Los Angeles County’s homelessness crisis amid mounting pressure from an anxious public. A shortage of workers has increased response times for teams responding to mental health crises reported to the 988 hotline. Care is delayed — in 2021, it took an average of 27 days to see a county psychiatrist. It’s also led to burnout among existing staff, who work long hours to make up for the lack of new talent, something supervisors discussed at a recent meeting.

And that makes it difficult to implement changes coming out of Sacramento. Los Angeles County will launch Governor Gavin Newsom’s Community Assistance, Recovery and Empowerment Court on December 1st. If there are not enough people to hire, they will pull people From existing programs until recruitment is complete. According to department documents.

“There is no question that we face two crises: an enormous mental health crisis in our communities, and a need to hire enough people to respond.” It is our mental health department’s challenge to do so,” Oversight Board Chair Janice Hahn said in a statement. “My vision is to have enough mental health professionals to not only respond to people suffering from mental illness on the streets in encampments, but also to immediately respond to mental health emergency calls, but employment is being held back. It becomes.”

These challenges have forced the Department of Mental Health to get creative.

We have also started holding recruitment fairs where you can get a job offer on the day of the interview. These events specifically target hard-to-fill positions and are proving successful.

Over the past five months, the Department of Mental Health has hired 272 people at the fair, including 37 to join the homeless assistance team and 30 to respond to mental health emergency calls, Hahn said. Things that have recently improved In response time.

These recruiting events are like speed-dating sessions for employers and applicants. On a recent Thursday at the department’s headquarters in Koreatown, dozens of recent master’s degree graduates in social work lined up in a conference room to hear elevator pitches from about 20 mental health clinics.

Each recruiter briefly explained the benefits of working at their location.

“We’re one of the busiest clinics” in the Willowbrook service area, one manager said. “What helps our work is to have purpose and meaning, and that’s where you find it,” said the Compton clinic manager.

A San Pedro clinic supervisor said the clinic has “one of the strongest housing programs” in the area. “We like to celebrate,” the Long Beach clinic manager said of the many potlucks and nacho dinners. “We try to support each other.”

The energy among the participants was upbeat, a mix of nervousness and polite laughter, until a social worker in the audience asked about the number of cases.

The Skid Row clinic supervisor said straight up. If hired there, she would have about 150 customers, she said. That could include patients who come in twice a year to check their medication prescriptions, or customers in crisis who come in frequently.

“Many other clinics do this many treatments. [on their caseloads] Yes,” she added, and polite laughter erupted throughout the room.

Substance abuse counselor Marina Barrios and her clients.

Substance abuse counselor Marina Barrios meets with clients at East San Gabriel Valley Mental Health Center in Los Angeles County. The county is looking to fill hundreds of mental health positions.

(Irrfan Khan/Los Angeles Times)

Nicole Pyles sat nearby and told herself to start breathing again. Pyles, who just graduated from the University of Southern California School of Social Work, had listed the Skid Row clinic as her first choice before the event began.

“I thought, ‘Okay, I’m not worried, I’ve had 30 cases before,'” said Pyles, 47. “When she said 150, my heart just jumped out of my chest. I think so,” he said. It was somewhere in my mouth and somewhere on the floor. ”

Pyles previously worked as a substance abuse counselor, but you don’t need a master’s degree to become certified and see clients.

But Pyles knew that for many of her clients, addiction is much more complex than the brain chemicals that make them crave a substance. She wanted to get to the root of the problem: the trauma that was fueling their addiction. These jobs require a master’s degree.

But Pyles was fully satisfied with her last job working with pregnant and postpartum clients suffering from substance use disorders.

That was until a client who had been working diligently on the program for several months approached me for help. The court date to maintain custody of my client’s newborn was moved from Monterey Park to Antelope Valley, and she needed a ride in her car.

Pyles thought she could help with that. However, her supervisor denied her request, telling Pyles that she was “allowing” the woman.

In that moment, Pyles knew she wanted the power to help in a bigger, more meaningful way.

“A friend of mine said, ‘If you want to make phone calls, if you want to be able to make decisions, you have to get an education,'” Pyles said. “And that’s exactly what I did.”

After earning a master’s degree from the University of Southern California, she agreed to work at a downtown Skid Row clinic and, after receiving an $18,500 stipend, ended up working in the county for a year. “My goal is to remain at DMH and advance into leadership,” she said.

Lisa H. Wong, director of the Department of Mental Health, said the agency is beginning to attract these professionals.

The department and its contracting agencies certainly took a hit when workers across the country reevaluated the types of jobs they wanted in the early days of the pandemic.

Wong said that when he worked as a clinical supervisor at a facility on Skid Row 15 years ago, he held a recruiting event that attracted dozens of candidates who wanted to work there. [it] It doesn’t apply to everyone. ”

By comparison, when she conducted a countywide recruitment drive for adult mental health positions about a year and a half ago, only 13 people applied.

However, in recent months, the ministry has noticed new changes, Wong said.

“I know I’m sometimes accused of being an optimist, but I think the tide is turning,” Wong said, noting that hiring and promotions have increased by 200% this year. “What we’re seeing now is a blessing in disguise for a national talent shortage. What we’re getting now are urban missionaries who are true believers. ”

In addition to the recruiting fair, the department is also renewing its academic relationship with graduate programs, which will lead to an increase in internships there, and will begin recruiting at out-of-state conferences and campuses for the first time.

The department went to the American Psychological Association to recruit. At a conference in Washington, D.C., LGBTQ+ clinicians told county officials they wanted to move to California because they didn’t feel safe in their home state.

“But at the same time, there were a lot of people who said, ‘I want to move to California, I want to live in L.A., but I don’t think I can afford it,'” Wong said.

Wong said he will focus on hiring at historically black colleges and universities and will talk to current county employees who are alumni about working in the department.

“We need more clinicians who look like our community,” Wong said. “I want little African-American boys to meet a black psychologist and know that not only can they open up and understand the culture, but that a black psychologist is also someone they aspire to be like. I am.”

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