Press Release: As District & Nation Face Mental Health Crisis, Councilmember Robert White Introduces Bill to Establish Free Master of Social Work Program at UDC, Expanding Pipeline for Mental Health Professionals

For Immediate Release:

WASHINGTON, DC (February 1, 2023) – The District, like the entire United States, is facing a mental health crisis as people cope with increased violence, systemic racism, basic needs getting more expensive due to inflation, and the trauma and stress from the pandemic. Today, Councilmember Robert White reintroduced the Pathways to Behavioral Health Degrees Act of 2023, which is co-introduced by Councilmembers McDuffie, Bonds, Allen, Nadeau, Gray, Pinto, Lewis George, Frumin, and Parker. This legislation would build the District’s pipeline of behavioral health specialists by funding a Master of Social Work degree program at the University of the District of Columbia (UDC) and making it free for DC residents who have bachelor’s degrees to enroll in master’s degree programs that lead to social work or counseling occupations with a scholarship covering tuition, books, and a monthly stipend for living expenses and transportation. 

“I’ve seen positive movement on mental health over the past couple of years, including reduced stigma and more people seeking out the support they need,” said Councilmember White. “But I hear from people all the time who can’t find a therapist or counselor, so we have to do something to expand the pipeline of mental health professionals. Mental health services are also a key component of a holistic approach to crime prevention and response, but we must have the workforce in place for it to make a real difference on the ground. This bill opens up a pathway for more people to pursue mental health degrees by making it completely free for DC residents.”

In early January, the School-Based Behavioral Health Program, which places behavioral health clinicians at DC public and public charter schools, had 104 vacant positions. These investments in our students’ mental health are critical, but the workforce needs to catch up. The 2022 DC Health Matters needs assessment states that “It is desperately important to create new pathways for workforce development. It was already on everyone’s radar five years ago, these workforce shortages. It’s just much worse now,” and their recommended policy action is taking steps to build the behavioral health workforce. 

Another benefit of this bill is the potential to lower the financial barrier for people of color to get into a field that needs more clinicians with cultural competency. Nationally, a 2020 report found that 22% of new social workers were Black/African American, and 14% were Hispanic/Latino. A 2016 community needs assessment conducted by the District of Columbia Healthy Communities Collaborative found that members of the DC community believe that cultural competency is a priority need–from perinatal mental health care access in the District, particularly in Wards 7 and 8 to behavioral health specialists working with children.

Councilmember White’s bill will complement the emergency legislation that the Council passed in June to fund a scholarship and loan repayment program for high-need healthcare careers, including nursing assistants, emergency medical technicians, and paramedics. And, it takes the next step to proactively build behavioral health career pathways in the District by establishing the UDC program and scholarship fund to seed a diverse cohort of future behavioral health specialists.

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