Conference Coverage

Community workers may address psychiatrist shortage



A pilot project that trains lay community members to screen for and address common psychiatric disorders, addiction issues, and suicide risk promises to bring timely, evidence-based health services to those with little to no access to effective care.

The current shortage of mental health clinicians is driven by increased demand from a population more willing to seek psychiatric help and clinicians leaving the workforce. Both factors were exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It would be costly to address the problem through additional specialist training, and doing so would take decades to see any changes,” project director Milton L. Wainberg, MD, professor of clinical psychiatry at Columbia University, New York, and New York State Psychiatric Institute, said in an interview.

professor of clinical psychiatry at Columbia University/New York State Psychiatric Institute Pauline Anderson

Dr. Milton Wainberg

A better solution is to train members of the community to be the entry point to the mental health care system, a strategy that has been proven effective.

Details of the project were discussed at the annual meeting of the American Psychiatric Association.

Half of the United States population will be diagnosed with a mental or substance use disorder in their lifetime, but only about half of those will receive proper treatment. That percentage is even greater among lower-income groups and minorities, said Dr. Wainberg.

Despite the availability of multiple evidence-based therapies, there has been no reduction in the global prevalence of psychiatric illness since 1990 – the first time this burden was determined, he said.

Unfeasible model

“The historic paradigm of ongoing long-term care is costly and not a feasible public mental health model. There is no evidence that it works, and there is increasing demand for brief interventions,” said Dr. Wainberg.

The new initiative – called ENGAGE – has its origins in parts of Africa, where nurses had to be trained during the AIDS crisis as there weren’t enough doctors to roll out antiretroviral therapy.

In the United States, the program trains and certifies community workers who are passionate about their community. “Members of the community want to learn how to help their neighbors,” said Dr. Wainberg. “When we give them the opportunity to learn skills that can actually change community members’ symptoms, they are excited.”

The training involves a didactic component and an experiential component, in which trainees work with at least three cases under supervision to demonstrate competency. Technical assistance and other supports, such as refresher training, are offered for a year after training.

Workers ask three initial questions to quickly determine if a person has a mental health disorder. Asking 10 additional questions tells the worker if the person has a common mental health disorder like depression, anxiety, or posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a substance use disorder involving alcohol or drugs, suicide risk, or a severe disorder requiring referral to a mental health specialist.

Those who do not require a referral are offered an intervention personalized to their need.

The training costs $5,000 per person. “We calculated for New York State it would cost only $18 million to train everybody we need,” said Dr. Wainberg.


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