With $1.5 million grant, UAA School of Social Work plans to double enrollment to help address mental health workforce shortage

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The University of Alaska Anchorage’s School of Social Work plans to significantly increase the number of students it can accept each year as a way to address what experts describe as a statewide shortage of mental and behavioral health providers.

The expansion, which will take place over the next five years, is made possible by a $1.5 million grant announced this week from the University of Alaska Anchorage and Recover Alaska. Funders include the Rasmuson Foundation, Premera Blue Cross Blue Shield of Alaska, Providence Alaska, Southcentral Foundation, Anchorage Congregation, Alaska Department of Health and the Alaska Mental Health Trust.

The idea for the grant came out of recent brainstorming sessions between mental health providers and philanthropists across Alaska, said Tiffany Hall, executive director of Recover Alaska, a nonprofit organization dedicated to addressing alcohol and substance abuse in the state.

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“It started as, you know, what should we do for people who are trying to get help and don’t know where to go,” Hall said in an interview.

“Someone else said, ‘Should there be a hotline?’ and then someone else said, “That won’t help, because we have nowhere to send them because there are such long waiting lists.” And so someone else asked, ‘Why is that?’ And it’s because we don’t have enough qualified providers in the state.”

Debbie Craig, dean of UAA’s College of Health, said she hopes the funding will help address a shortage of qualified behavioral and mental health providers that mirrors national trends.

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Craig cited recent Alaska workforce projection data that shows social work will grow by about 10% over the next decade, or about 195 more jobs.

Increased anxiety, depression and other mental health challenges have increased the demand for skilled mental health providers, Craig said.

“And then at the same time, over the past two to three years, probably largely because of the pandemic, we’ve lost about 108 social workers every year,” she said.

More social workers in the state would also help address Alaska’s high rates of substance abuse, Hall said.

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Alaska leads the nation in alcohol-related deaths, with nearly 1 in 10 deaths in the state caused by use, according to a four-year study published by JAMA Network Open this month.

The money will eventually give the school the ability to admit about 85 students a year after a slow ramp-up, starting with five to 10 new students starting next fall, he said.

She said the funding will initially be used to hire more staff and faculty members to accommodate increased class sizes. So far, the school has been able to accommodate only 35 students per year.

“We’re going to roll this out slowly but surely,” Craig said.



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