Sen. Tina Smith Introduces Mental Health Legislation As Demand For Therapists Skyrockets

WASHINGTON, D.C./DULUTH, Minn. — U.S. Senator Tina Smith, a Democrat representing Minnesota, wants to expand and support mental health resources with several proposals in Congress as clinics are seeing their patient lists fill up like never before.

For Mental Health Awareness Month, Senator Smith posted several tweets on her Twitter page about her own journey with depression.

“Having that opportunity to get connected in with a counselor and a therapist right there where I went to college made a huge difference to me, and then when I got a little older and I was a young mom I also had another experience with depression,” she said. “And again, I was able to get the help that I needed. Having that experience has really encouraged me to speak out about it.”

She has three proposals in Congress to help bridge the gaps in mental health care and resources.

The first proposal is called Mental Health Professionals Workforce Shortage Loan Repayment Act. It would reimburse federal student loans up to $250,000 for those who pursue a career in the mental health field where there’s a shortage of professionals in it.

“Experts expect that by 2025, which is in just a few years, that there will be a shortage of 250,000 mental health care providers in this country, and this especially hits often rural communities,” Smith explained.

One clinic in the Northland seeing high demand for mental health services over the years is the Duluth Counseling Center.

It now has 22 therapists, up from just two in 2013.

“Last week, we hired three therapists and they’re almost full and they just started last week,” Katie Erickson, the DCC clinical director and licensed professional clinical counselor, explained.

Erickson said she understands careers in mental health services aren’t always appealing, because of the student debt and typical starting salary.

“I mean it’s a hard job and to get people to want to go onto three years of a Master’s program and come out and make $40,000 a year working your butt off, a lot of people say, ‘no thank you, I’ll do something easier,” Erickson said.

She added that because most clinics are insurance-based and not publicly funded, therapists in the Duluth area can expect to top out at $70,000 a year in salary, even as their years of experience keep growing.

“You only get reimbursed so much and then a company has all their overhead…I can’t give these people raises, and they know that because it’s no different anywhere else,” Erickson explained.

“There has been a resistance among insurance company providers for reimbursing for mental health care,” Senator Smith emphasized.

The second bill Senator Smith is proposing is called the Mental Health Services for Students Act. It would pave the way for schools to work with community groups to bring in more mental health professionals, and also train school staff to recognize the signs that a student may be struggling, and connect them to help.

“In Minnesota right now, there are roughly 30% of young people who have a mental health concern are not getting care at all,” Smith said. “That is again such a tragedy and we would never put up with that if it was a broken arm, or some other kind of physical ailment.”

The third bill, called the Medicaid Bump Act, would open up a federal incentive for states to spend Medicaid funding to make therapy and substance abuse treatment more accessible to those who need it.

Erickson said she knows how the power of therapy can change a person’s life, adding that most people wrongly believe they can’t come in and talk to a therapist unless they have big problems.

“You just gotta come early, and too many people think that ‘I don’t have time’ or whatever, and it’s just, people do so much better if they come when things are small, instead of waiting”

As these conversations become less taboo in America, Senator Smith said she wants society to realize that mental health is really a piece of our biological health, and going to therapy should be no different than if you needed to see a doctor for another health concern.

“Asking for help is a sign of strength, not of weakness, and I think that by sharing my story I can maybe, maybe make it a little easier for others to share their stories and start to break down this stigma around mental health,” Senator Smith said.

A new facility called the Clarity Center for Wellbeing will open up in Duluth in the coming years for those seeking mental health and substance abuse treatment in the Arrowhead Region.

Construction begins next spring.

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