Behavioral health professionals hope a new program coming to Pueblo Community College next year will help fill local workforce gaps in a rapidly growing industry.
Beginning in the spring 2020 semester, students at PCC’s Pueblo, Fremont and Southwest campuses can enroll in the college’s new behavioral health program. Full-time students will be able to complete the program in one calendar year — three semesters and two summer sessions — and will earn an associate’s degree in applied science, according to a news release from PCC.
Students will study behavioral health concepts related to addiction and substance abuse, counseling, group dynamics, interpersonal communications, conflict management, professional ethics and human development. They will also complete the required coursework for Certified Addiction Counselor CAC levels I and II certification.
Graduates of PCC’s program can work in careers such as behavioral health technician or specialist, case manager, community health worker, substance abuse counselor and social service liaison, among others.
LAYING THE FOUNDATION
PCC’s newest program sprang from conversations with various industry partners about their workforce needs as the local behavioral health landscape continues to shift, said Mary Chavez, PCC’s dean of public health and safety.
Colorado Labor Market Information indicates that employment in the behavioral health field is expected to increase more than 31 percent through 2028, PCC spokeswoman Amy Matthew said.
“Much of Colorado is designated as a mental health professional shortage area and as a whole has an inadequate amount of qualified professionals,” Dena McCrackin, divisional manager of human resources for Abraxas Youth & Family Services in Canon City, said in the news release. “As a result, we are constantly looking at ways to attract and retain a well-trained behavioral health workforce.”
In the Colorado Springs area and nationwide, a shortage of mental health care providers is making it difficult for patients to find available appointments, Moe Keller, director of advocacy for Mental Health Colorado, told the Business Journal in March.
This shortage is unfolding concurrently with a sharp rise in opioid addiction and resulting deaths. In 2017, there were 578 overdose deaths involving opioids in Colorado — a rate of 10 deaths per 100,000 people, compared to the average national rate of 14.6 deaths per 100,000 people, according to a March report from the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
In the same period, deaths involving synthetic opioids other than methadone (mainly fentanyl) doubled from 58 to 112 cases and prescription opioid-involved deaths nearly doubled from 176 to 300 cases, according to the report.
All of these issues fall within the behavioral health spectrum, making the sort of training offered by PCC’s program that much more crucial, Chavez said.
“Behavioral health has a lot of facets. No doubt there’s some behavioral health [issues] that can be tied to various addiction problems. … We’re seeing an increase in some addictions, which increases some of the behavioral health [needs? issues?],” Chavez said.
“The more we can have practitioners or health care people who run into the individuals in their facilities, especially at the entry level, they can recognize someone may be in crisis and hopefully put some steps into place to help that individual sooner rather than later.”
The Colorado Mental Health Institute at Pueblo is the industry’s primary employer in the Pikes Peak region, and many of those jobs require a nursing focus and skills, Chavez said.
However, many other outpatient facilities and hospitals reported trouble hiring and retaining more entry-level positions, such as behavioral health technicians, she said.
“So that triggered those conversations — ‘How can we modify what we’re doing for what our industry needs and how can we help meet that?’” Chavez said.
Developing a comprehensive curriculum presented a challenge, as the titles and job descriptions of these positions tend to vary by facility, Chavez said.
“Because there’s so much out there, we had a tough time getting a handle on, ‘How do we design this degree?’” she said. “We looked at what [these facilities] do with some of their onboarding and what we could take away from that so they wouldn’t have to spend some time training their employees. They could focus on training more specific to the facility versus doing a foundation of ‘What is behavioral health?’ As an education facility, we can manage that.”
Professional responsibilities can range from taking general information from potential clients and incoming patients, to case management or serving as a liaison for other community resources, Chavez said.
“We’ll try to keep some stability in their employees by having someone who has some education and training and understanding of what they’re going to see in a behavioral health-type setting,” she said. “Hopefully that will help keep them there.”
A unique aspect of the program is that it does not include any new courses, Chavez said. Instead, she collaborated within the college to consolidate existing classes across various disciplines, such as nursing and psychology.
“I wanted a cross division into our arts and science, or general education,” Chavez said. “We looked at the competencies of those courses and [how] are they going to meet the needs of the employer?’ That’s how we ended up pulling those together.”
In addition to the career possibilities offered with an associate’s degree, PCC’s program also establishes a pathway for students to earn a bachelor’s degree in human services from UCCS thanks to a transfer agreement between the two schools.
“Any time we are partnering with community colleges to provide access and opportunities for students to obtain a bachelor’s degree, it’s good for UCCS,” Conley said. “But we also think it will help ensure that we are building a solid foundation for the [human services] bachelor’s degree program for recruitment.”
The human services program is another relatively new edition to the Pikes Peak region’s higher education scene, Conley said. Students can specialize in one of four tracts — military support services, career counseling, student affairs and certified addiction counseling.
“When we were doing a needs analysis, these emphasis areas seem to fit the needs of our community, so that’s why we chose them to start with,” Conley said. “There’s a huge need around the human services professionals in behavioral health and wellness.”
UCCS has previously offered this coursework as part of its masters program in clinical mental health, but the four-year institution did not previously have an undergraduate option, Conley said.
“We wanted to make sure with our [bachelor’s of arts degree] in human services that it would provide a pathway to a bachelor’s degree that would allow students to have a specific career potential,” she said. “One emphasis area within the BA in human services is addictions counseling. Students can take coursework at PCC that leads to the CAC I certification, but you really need a bachelor’s degree in order to gain employment. That is one tract within this program that we feel is going to have a good bit of traffic.”
Students can complete the majority of coursework at PCC before transferring those credits to UCCS and getting the necessary clinical hours to complete their CAC certifications, while also pursuing a bachelor’s degree in human services, Conley said.
“Then there will be a minimal amount of coursework that they’ll have to do in Colorado Springs,” she said. “We think that it is going to provide a pathway and meet some needs for behavioral health and wellness around the region. We know that is also an area of need in Pueblo and surrounding areas … [and] Pueblo is certainly a part of what I consider our service region.”