Dignity for mental health workers

Published: 6/23-2022 8:04:20 PM

Modified: 6/23-2022 8:01:58 PM

I love my job. I enjoy working with children, teens and adults as a mental health social worker in Greenfield. But sometimes when I see my paycheck, I wonder, “What am I doing?”

I am proud to work for a community mental health agency, and that work is incredibly meaningful and challenging. Many of the stories I hear every day express the depth of human suffering: racism, poverty, physical and emotional pain, abuse and neglect. It is my responsibility to decide if a teen’s suicidal thoughts are serious enough to contact emergency services. I consider my clients emergency housing. I guide them through restraining orders and use EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) therapy to help them process past trauma.

My passion is to help people feel happier and more involved in the world, but my pay is so low that it is difficult for me and many others in my field to take time off to look after our own well-being. I have a master’s degree in counseling psychology, 15 years of experience, and I’m licensed here in Massachusetts, but I make a little more than a Target or Amazon worker. In 2015, the legislature recognized the significant mental health needs in our state and fully funded Chapter 257 – the budget line that supports human services agencies here in Massachusetts.

Over the past seven years, the Commonwealth has poured over $815 million into human services, just like mine. But somehow this big investment hasn’t made it to the people who power them: their workers. Why has my pay barely improved while all this money is pouring in? Why are there so many vacancies at my clinic when the state has given agencies like mine so much money? It’s very simple: low salaries. Not enough of that state funding finds its way to healthcare workers like me. In fact, the average starting salary for a direct care worker in Massachusetts, who works full-time, is only $34,050 per year.

I treat clients dealing with a wide variety of traumatic and heartbreaking situations, which have only gotten worse during the pandemic. My colleagues and I worked extra hard during this time to support families struggling with their children trying to learn at home, encourage people to stay clean and sober when the world seemed to disappear, and showed up every week for people who are alone and depressed or crippled by fear of getting sick.

Our work keeps people alive, keeps them out of hospitals and keeps children learning. Every time I listen to the news, there are stories about the tremendous need for more mental health workers. But like many “essential workers,” my colleagues and I are emotionally drained, underpaid, and financially stressed. And that’s why we’re leaving mental health clinics. When therapists leave because they cannot afford to stay, trust with clients is broken, treatment is interrupted, and clients often have to wait a long time before being reassigned.

But there is a way to handle this workforce crisis. I strongly support the reform of Chapter 257 by requiring that at least 75% of new state funding goes directly to wages and benefits for frontline workers. It just makes sense. In the coming weeks, the Conference Committee will tackle the reform of Chapter 257 and determine whether it meets the final budget.

Now is the time to let our leaders know that Chapter 257 funding should be spent on wages for human service workers who work directly with customers. Higher wages would allow community health clinics to attract new workers and retain the ones we have. By giving workers in community health centers a living wage, we can ensure that the quality of care is equal for every patient – whether they go to a state-funded community mental health center or a consultation in a private practice. Right now, too many of our customers are hurt by high turnover rates in our industry.

Despite the challenges, I am an optimist and I believe we can do better. I dream of a time when someone in need of mental health support can easily find quality care in their community. Chapter 257 reform would bring us a little closer to this reality.

Shannon Gamble is a licensed mental health psychiatrist based in Greenfield.

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