Education Leadership Conference

The need to expand training opportunities and prepare more psychologists to meet the mental health needs of Americans living in underserved areas was among the key messages almost 100 psychologists relayed to Capitol Hill during the Educational Leadership Conference (ELC) in September.

The lobbying blitz was pegged to the upcoming congressional reauthorization of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), the federal agency responsible for funding and overseeing state-administered mental health and substance abuse treatment and prevention programs (see more on the reauthorization).

Last reauthorized in 2000, the process gives Congress a chance to set priorities within the range of mental health and substance abuse programs overseen by the $3 billion-plus agency.

In their meetings with congressional members and staff, psychologists focused on three points they want included in SAMHSA's reauthorization:

  • Continuing federal support for the Minority Fellowship Program (MFP), which provides financial support and professional guidance to students who pursue doctoral degrees in psychology, as well as postdoctoral fellowships to work with ethnic and racial minorities. As part of a push for new federal funding, APA also seeks to make institutional grants and loan repayment available for psychologists who train to work with underserved populations.
  • Collecting more information on the number, type and location of mental health service providers nationwide to determine where services are lacking.
  • Doubling the federal money annually allocated to the Campus Suicide Prevention Program through SAMHSA, from $5 million to $10 million. They also noted that colleges should be able to use SAMHSA grants to: provide a range of psychological services; to assess and treat students; and to strengthen the training of mental health professionals at campus mental health centers with more fellowships and internships.

Advance preparation

ELC participants prepared for the visits with training sessions held the day before, including presentations from speakers involved in training issues, such as Ron Manderscheid, PhD, a former top SAMHSA official who is now director of mental health and substance use programs for the Constella Group in Rockville, Md.

Manderscheid pointed out that aside from the Minority Fellowship Program (MFP), federal support for the training of clinical psychologists has dwindled from a peak of $117 million in 1971 to nothing since 1994. Grant money available for the MFP through SAMHSA totaled $958,256 in fiscal year 2007.

The lack of federal support for workforce development in mental health comes at a time when several reports, such as those released by the President's New Freedom Commission and the Institute of Medicine, have pointed out the need to improve mental health treatment and training, Manderscheid said. "If there's absolutely zero investment in clinical training, we will not have the work force that we need."

ELC attendees also heard from Nancy Davis, EdD, a psychologist with SAMHSA's Center for Mental Health Services, and Kermit Crawford, PhD, a former MFP fellow and a Federal Education Advocacy Coordinator, who said the program's financial support and mentoring made his career possible.

Making the rounds

After the training, Edward Varra, PhD, a clinician with the VA Puget Sound Healthcare System and Pat Cole, PhD, a counseling psychologist at the student health and counseling center at Central Washington University, were among the psychologists who visited the offices of Reps. Dave Reichert, R-Wash., and Doc Hastings, R-Wash., and Sens. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Maria Cantwell, D-Wash.

Returning for her eighth lobbying visit since 2001, Cole said she used her experiences as a psychologist in a rural area to talk about the need for more federal training support, given the level of debt psychology students are accumulating.

"People with that kind of debt can barely afford to work in a rural area, because they don't get paid enough money to live and pay student loans," Cole said.

For his part, Varra talked about the fact that some of the Iraq and Afghanistan veterans he works with are dealing with posttraumatic stress disorder, and feel isolated as they reenter civilian life and go to college with students who don't understand what they have been through. During his visits, Varra pointed out that more money for mental health services on the nation's campuses from the SAMHSA administered campus suicide prevention program could help veterans, a message that resonated with the staffers.

"They certainly appreciated that," said Varra of the congressional staffers he and Cole met. "They understood that need," he said.