SIU School of Medicine’s Dr. Kari Wolf talks new Behavioral Health Workforce Education Center

This week saw state leaders formally launch a new center aimed at improving the recruitment, education and training of behavioral health professionals.

The Behavioral Health Workforce Education Center will be housed at the Southern Illinois University School of Medicine. Its partners include the University of Illinois Chicago’s Jane Addams College of Social Work, the Illinois Board of Higher Education and the Department of Human Services.

Dr. Kari Wolf, chair of psychiatry at SIU School of Medicine, will serve as CEO of the center. She hopes they can build a workforce that can support residents throughout the state, including areas where there is currently little to no available service.

“It’s really a multi-pronged approach to look at how we create more workforce and how we retain that workforce,” she told Health News Illinois.

Wolf also spoke on what’s next now that the center has launched and what challenges remain to bolster the sector’s long-depleted workforce.

Edited excerpts below:

HNI: What are the next steps after this week’s launch?

KW: Fortunately, we have the roadmap from the task force, and we’ll be using that. We are convening input from various committees to get input from partners across the state. And we’re building the infrastructure right now to really support this workforce center for the long term. We’re also going to be embarking on a strategic plan because the need and the work to do is enormous. And so we need to prioritize that work so that we can have the greatest impact.

HNI: What are still some of the challenges that come with recruiting people to the workforce?

KW: Most behavioral health specialists need clinical training, either as part of getting their degree or after their degree before they can have an independent licensure. It’s hard to place people in parts of the state where there is nobody to supervise them while they’re there getting that clinical training. So how do we think about really creating clinical placements sites around the state so that we can train a workforce who wants to stay in those parts of the state? So that’s one of the big challenges that we’re going to be facing.

HNI: What are your near- and long-term visions for the center?

KW: We have several pillars of work that we’re doing. One pillar will be a pathway program, creating opportunities, getting people excited about careers in behavioral health and helping facilitate their entry into those careers. We’re also going to be focused on retention. How do we retain the workforce that we have so that they don’t leave the state? How do we retain people who graduate from programs so they want to continue to practice in this state and not leave for other opportunities? Loan repayment programs, all of those things become important in terms of just creating the workforce. There’s going to be a policy aspect, making policy recommendations that may be on loan repayment programs, that may be changing how we license individuals. That could be any array of items, but really recommend policies that would make our state more attractive for people to practice here, both for people who train here and people to move into this state. There’s a data collection piece. We have trouble scoping what is our current behavioral health workforce. When you go to people who are licensed, they may or may not be practicing, just because they have a license to practice a specific discipline in the state, they may have retired, they may be working in administrative capacities. So what is our current workforce? And then defining that gap. So what is the gap geographically, numbers-wise and in terms of our diversity lens?

HNI: What does this launch mean to you, after all the work to develop the center?

KW: It is exciting, it is transformative. I’ve been working on behavioral health workforce for almost my entire career, and I was thrilled when I came to Illinois and was able to partner with (former Community Behavioral Healthcare Association of Illinois CEO) Marvin Lindsey to really look at it at a more systemic level. And that this administration and the state has embraced this as a need and a problem that we are going to solve, it’s just the pinnacle of my career.