Training prepares clinicians for rural work

After completing the programs, social workers, counselors and psychologists stay longer in underserved areas.

The Old Well on campus in Autumn.
(Johnny Andrews/UNC-Chapel Hill)

Many rural communities in the U.S. face a shortage of behavioral health clinicians.  This is worsened with the greater demand for care with the opioid epidemic and, on the positive side, a growing cultural acceptance of receiving mental health care.

Rural and underserved-focused training programs and clinical placements for behavioral health students is a common approach taken to help prepare students for later work in these settings. A study team from the schools of medicine and social work and the Cecil G. Sheps Center for Health Services Research recently assessed whether this training works. The findings were for the Journal of Rural Health.

They analyzed longitudinal survey data from more than 2,000 licensed clinical social workers, licensed professional counselors and psychologists working in rural counties in 21 states. Nearly two-thirds had received some amount of training in providing care in underserved communities. Further, those who reported more training in rural, underserved settings also reported feeling better integrated into, and happier within, their rural communities than those with less such training. They also anticipated remaining longer in their safety net practices.

 contribute to the growing knowledge of the workforce outcomes of current behavioral health training programs and experiences intended to prepare learners for careers in rural, underserved settings.

“This study reinforces the important connection between training content and meaningful policy supports, such as loan repayment programs through the National Health Service Corps, to help ensure rural safety net clinics are staffed with a workforce who understands a community’s unique strengths and challenges,” says investigator Lisa Zerden.

An associate professor in the UNC School of Social Work, Zerden is the school’s director of interprofessional education. “These findings point to how current investments in training and education can have a positive effect on providers’ willingness to stay invested in these communities in the longer-term.”

This project was supported by funding from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and the Health Resources and Services Administration of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Find more about this and other studies of the .