House bill calls for $20 million in state funds to boost mental health field

Published: Jan. 18, 2023 at 8:18 PM CST
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SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (Dakota News Now) - A South Dakota lawmaker is proposing a bill that would set aside $20 million in state funds for scholarships to support people entering the behavioral health field in the state.

Representative Taylor Rehfeldt (R-Sioux Falls) told Dakota News Now that House Bill 1044 would address what she considers a significant need for more mental health therapists, psychologists, psychiatrists, nurses, and in-school licensed counselors.

If the bill passes, all college students at South Dakota institutions could apply for the scholarship. But there’s a catch — each recipient would be required to enter a behavioral health occupation in South Dakota after completing their studies. And they would have to stay in the state, in the industry, for at least the same number of years they received the funds.

Rehfeldt said HB 1044 has plenty of details to hammer. But in its infancy stage, it passed through the legislature’s Juvenile Justice Committee unanimously, 13-0, last October.

“There’s a lot of asks for money this year (in the legislature) and a lot of important issues that need to be addressed,” Rehfeldt said. “But I’m going to do my best to advocate for it. I think it is incredibly important for the future of our state and our ability not only to take care of people, but enable our future workforce by taking care of our citizens and our state.”

“It’s an outstanding bill,” said Avera Behavioral Health Hospital associate vice president Thomas Otten, who added the need for behavioral health has “greatly increased” the last three years, with the Covid-19 pandemic bringing additional stressors and more people lining up for therapists — therefore increasing demand.

And then there’s the not-uncommon double whammy of decreasing supply of available professionals.

“Just about every industry would say it has a workforce shortage, and is definitely true in the behavioral health world,” Otten said.

Otten — who helps oversee a staff of about 700 — says many kinds of mental health jobs have gone unfilled for over a year at Avera, from psychiatric nurses to licensed professional counselors to addiction counselors. Especially addiction counselors.

It is not uncommon for anyone of any age in South Dakota to wait three or four weeks to connect with or be able to book an appointment with a licensed mental health professional, Rehfeldt said.

“Waiting that long can feel like a year,” Rehfeldt said. And the longer a patient waits, the longer their psychological demons linger, affecting not just them, but potentially those around them, their job performance, and ability to function in normal society. Possible ramifications include a higher likelihood to commit a crime or attempt suicide.

One in five Americans report mental health struggles, and one in ten young people experience depression and anxiety, according to Mental Health in America (MHA).

Rehfeldt said HB 1044 would be a major boost for struggling humans of all ages, but especially for our most troubled kids.

”When somebody enters into the Juvenile Justice System, it can sometimes be upwards of 90 percent of them have experienced an adverse childhood experience,” Rehfeldt said. “When that happens, when there’s not an intervention through therapy and getting help, the likelihood of them healing from those issues is going to be low,” Rehfeldt said.

Sometimes, it takes 5-6 weeks just for some juveniles to get diagnosed with mental health issues by a licensed psychologist, and even longer for juveniles to receive counseling. This only allows for more chances of behavioral issues to persist and worsen.

Otten confirmed that the Juvenile Justice System in South Dakota is “backed up,” and that some Juvenile Detention Centers have little access to behavioral health services. He did say the state is working hard to fix that.

But the behavioral health specialist shortage affects all kids, both Rehfedlt and Otten said.

”We have had conversations with multiple different school administrators across South Dakota who would say it’s a very different today than it was even five years ago,” Otten said.

The biggest difference?

”Teachers are having such a hard time teaching material, because they’re having to deal with behavioral and mental health issues, and that’s not what teachers are meant to be doing,” Rehfeldt said. “When you have that distraction, it’s just not working.”

And that reality for teachers has pushed some out of that profession and left a workforce shortage, as well. It is a domino effect that negatively impacts kids, teachers, parents, and society alike, experts said.

Which is why Rehfeldt wants to give South Dakota college students the incentive of state money to stay and work in the field in South Dakota, from freshmen in tech school classes to those working on their doctorate degrees. From those who train to be licensed mental health counselors in schools, to private practicing psychologists and psychiatrists.

One Sioux Falls private psychologist, who wished to remain anonymous, said the metropolitan area actually has a decent abundance of therapists who practice privately for smaller firms, or on their own, like her.

“I could bring someone in tomorrow,” she said.

But Otten said he’s in plenty of need for a variety of positions, and both Rehfeldt and the behavioral health professionals we talked with said the shortage of professional help is statewide, especially in rural communities. Perhaps giving collegiate students a financial reason to stick around in South Dakota will change that.

His message to them —

”It’s not every job where I can go to work and literally, every day, I have an opportunity to save a life or change a life,” Otten said.

“Anything we can do keep our best and brightest would be a welcome addition to the behavioral health field.”