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Friday, October 25, 2013

The Mental Health Workforce: A Primer

Elayne J. Heisler
Analyst in Health Services

Erin Bagalman
Analyst in Health Policy

Congress has held hearings and introduced legislation addressing the interrelated topics of the quality of mental health care, access to mental health care, and the cost of mental health care. The mental health workforce is a key component of each of these topics. The quality of mental health care depends partially on the skills of the people providing the care. Access to mental health care relies on, among other things, the number of appropriately skilled providers available to provide care. The cost of mental health care depends in part on the wages of the people providing care. Thus an understanding of the mental health workforce may be helpful in crafting policy and conducting oversight. This report aims to provide such an understanding as a foundation for further discussion of mental health policy.

No consensus exists on which provider types make up the mental health workforce. This report focuses on the five provider types identified by the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) within the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) as “core mental health professionals”: psychiatrists, clinical psychologists, clinical social workers, advanced practice psychiatric nurses, and marriage and family therapists. The HRSA definition of the mental health workforce is limited to highly trained (e.g., graduate degree) professionals; however, this workforce may be defined more broadly elsewhere.

An understanding of typical licensure requirements and scopes of practice may help policy makers determine how to focus policy initiatives aimed at increasing the quality of the mental health workforce. Although state licensure requirements vary widely across provider types, the scopes of practice converge into provider types that generally can prescribe medication (psychiatrists and advanced practice psychiatric nurses) and provider types that generally cannot prescribe medication (clinical psychologists, clinical social workers, and marriage and family therapists). The core mental health provider types can all provide psychosocial interventions (e.g., talk therapy). Administration and interpretation of psychological tests is generally the province of clinical psychologists.

Access to mental health care depends in part on the number of mental health providers overall and the number of specific types of providers. Clinical social workers are generally the most plentiful core mental health provider type, followed by clinical psychologists, who substantially outnumber marriage and family therapists. While less abundant than the three aforementioned provider types, psychiatrists outnumber advanced practice psychiatric nurses. Policy makers may influence the size of the mental health workforce through a number of health workforce training programs.

Policy makers may assess the relative wages of different provider types, particularly when addressing policy areas where the federal government employs mental health providers. Psychiatrists are the highest earners, followed by advanced practice psychiatric nurses and clinical psychologists. Marriage and family therapists earn more than clinical social workers. The relative costs of employing different provider types may be a consideration for federal agencies that employ mental health providers.

Date of Report: October 18, 2013
Number of Pages: 24
Order Number: R43255
Price: $29.95

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