Dignity for mental health workers

Published: 6/23/2022 8:04:20 PM

Modified: 6/23/2022 8:01:58 PM

I love my job. I love working with kids, teens and adults as a community mental health clinician in Greenfield. But sometimes when I see my paycheck, I wonder: “What am I doing?”

I proudly work for a community mental health agency, and that work is incredibly meaningful and challenging. Many of the stories I hear every day express the depth of human suffering: racism, poverty, physical and emotional pain, abuse and neglect. It is my responsibility to make decisions about whether a teen’s suicidal ideation is serious enough to contact Crisis Services. I find my clients emergency housing. I walk them through getting a restraining order and use EMDR therapy (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing) to help them process past trauma.

I am passionate about supporting people to feel happier and more engaged in the world, but my pay is so low, it’s difficult for me and many others in my field to take time off in order to care for our own well-being. I have a masters in counseling psychology, 15 years of experience, and I’m licensed here in Massachusetts, yet I make a bit more than a Target or Amazon worker. In 2015, the Legislature recognized the significant mental health needs in our state and fully funded Chapter 257 — the budget line item that supports human services agencies here in Massachusetts.

In these last seven years, the commonwealth has poured more than $815 million into human service agencies just like mine. Yet somehow this major investment hasn’t made its way to the very people powering them: their workers. Why have my wages barely improved when all this money is pouring in? Why are there so many job openings at my clinic when the state has given agencies like mine so much money. It’s very simple: Low salaries. Not enough of that state funding makes its way to direct care workers like me. In fact, the average starting salary for a Massachusetts direct care worker, working full time, is only $34,050 a year.

I treat clients who are coping with a wide range of traumatic and heart-breaking situations, which only got worse during the pandemic. My co-workers and I worked extra hard during this time to support families struggling with their kids trying to learn at home, encouraging people to stay clean and sober when the world seemed like it was coming undone, and showed up every week for folks who are alone and depressed or crippled with anxiety about getting sick.

Our work keeps people alive, keeps them out of hospitals, and keeps kids learning. Every time I listen to the news, there are stories about the tremendous need for more mental health workers. But like many other “essential workers,” my colleagues and I are emotionally exhausted, underpaid, and financially stressed. And we are leaving community mental health clinics because of it. When therapists leave because they can’t afford to stay, the trusted relationship with clients is broken, treatment is interrupted, and clients often have to wait a long time to be reassigned.

But there is a way to address this workforce crisis. I strongly support reforming Chapter 257 by requiring that at least 75% of new state funding go directly to wages and benefits for front line workers. It just makes sense. Over the next few weeks, the Conference Committee will take up Chapter 257 reform and determine if it makes the final budget.

Now is the time to let our leaders know that Chapter 257 funding needs to be directed toward wages for human service workers who work directly with clients. Higher wages would allow community health clinics to attract new employees and retain the ones we have. By giving workers at community health centers a living wage, we can make sure the quality of care for every patient is equitable – whether they go to a state-funded community mental health center or a private practice consultation. Right now, too many of our clients are being hurt by high turnover rates in our industry.

I am an optimist despite the challenges and I believe that we can do better. I dream of a time when someone who needs mental health support can easily find quality care in their community. Chapter 257 reform would get us a little closer to this reality.

Shannon Gamble is a licensed mental health clinician in Greenfield.