Quickly trained lay counselors may help address the growing demand for mental health workers.
Research has shown that roughly 1 in every 5 adults will experience some level of mental illness in their lifetime but over half of those individuals will not receive any professional help for their struggles. This means the majority of people are still suffering in silence, which is especially concerning given that mental health workers are already overstretched, and with a practitioner shortage, may become more so if everyone eventually decides to seek help. That’s why a California clinician believes ‘lay counselors’ may be the solution the nation has been looking for.
May 18 marked Mental Health Action Day and in Modesto, California. This also marked the start of a new initiative by county mental health officials to improve the situation on a local level. Dr. Elizabeth Morrison said, “The demand so far outweighs the resources that we have.” Dr. Morrison, whose 27 years in the industry has seen her working as a psychologist, clinical social worker, and earning a master’s degree in addiction counseling, is very vocal concerning the practitioner shortage issue. According to her, Stanislaus County (in which Modesto sits) has one of the most severe shortages in mental health clinicians of anywhere in the U.S. and this is expected to get far worse in the years to come if the problem isn’t abated now.
The bottleneck created by several years of pandemic crises and a shortage of healthcare professionals needs to be dealt with, and Dr. Morrison believes she has the answer. The Lay Counselor Academy is a training program which is designed to help those without degrees or licensing to enter the mental health profession as counselors.
This, according to Dr. Morrison, may seem radical but is something “lower income countries have been doing…for decades.” And the county itself has supported this move. It plans to send 50 case managers to the academy where they will undergo 65 hours of training to become lay counselors. During this training, they will be taught how to respond to patients. Actors will be used to illustrate the correct techniques.
Dr. Morrison makes it very clear that this is not a shortcut to becoming a mental health clinician. Lay counselors will be seen more as supports rather than qualified clinicians who can assist with more complex issues. The intent is to take people with a skill for relating to others and elevating this with training. The human connection is, of course, the most important aspect of therapy.
Former criminal defense investigator and lay counselor Alli Moreno is a confounder of the Academy along with Dr. Morrison, and she explained, “It really depends on the skills way more than any sort of education.” Both founders are quick to clarify that there are limitations to the qualifications, and they should be seen as a supplement, not a replacement.
There is a practitioner shortage, especially in rural and lower income areas which struggle to recruit fully accredited therapists. It is thought that lay counselors may be especially useful in these areas. Whether a more widespread movement to trained lay counselors will take hold is yet to be seen.
Dr. Morrison’s own practice actually includes three-quarters lay counselors and one-quarter licensed clinicians. Playing a supporting role to the licensed professionals, these lay counselors may be just what the industry needs to bounce back from the growing mental health crisis.