“The level of distress and crisis that people are experiencing is infinitely higher [post-COVID-19]. We see more people in severe crisis due to homelessness, substance abuse, and lack of hope.”1

We hear a lot about workforce shortages and the dire implications for those in need. But when you talk to the people who are trying to make a difference, it’s personal. These words are especially painful to me: We’re in the business of hope, and it’s being stolen from us.

We’re also in the business of solutions. And nobody is taking that away from us!

As the President and CEO of the National Council for Mental Wellbeing (National Council), it’s part of my job to talk to our members, and it’s by far my favorite part. But sometimes, it’s difficult to hear about the toll their dedication takes on them, their staff, and the very people they’re helping.

When you represent more than 3100 mental health and substance use treatment organizations, you’d better know what’s going on in the field. Talking with our members is my window into our world. But it’s not the whole picture.

The workforce shortage is nothing new. Limited funding streams for behavioral health, along with non-competitive salaries, created the foundation of the workforce shortage that has developed over time. But we are now at a tipping point, and we hover on the precipice of a shortage that has been accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic. We at the National Council wanted to truly understand the scope of the problems in real numbers.

That’s why we partnered with Morning Consult to find out the impact of COVID-19 on the behavioral health workforce and embarked on an online survey of a national sample of 260 National Council members. Results from the full survey have a margin of error of plus or minus 6 percent.

The results confirmed our worst suspicions:1 78 percent of the surveyed organizations reported the demand for their services had increased in the previous three months; 62 percent of organizations reported growing patient waitlists; and a staggering 97 percent reported trouble recruiting and retaining employees.

One of those surveyed reported, “A local refuse company is offering $7,500 sign-on bonus to drive a garbage truck! We can’t compete with that…” What a sad commentary. The organizations that safeguard the mental health of those at the greatest risk are in competition with refuse companies for workers.

But, thanks to the research conducted by Morning Consult, we now have numbers to attach to our suspicions and a better grasp of just how widespread the problem has become; numbers we can share with policymakers and leaders to effect change. We also have much-needed insight into the field’s short-term solutions: adding funding to hire qualified staff, continuing to offer telehealth services, updating reimbursement rates, and reducing the amount of paperwork/regulation that causes a burden to staff.

As the industry association for mental health and substance use treatment providers, we are now turning our attention to gaining insight into the attitudes of the people working in behavioral health care settings, concentrating on clinical/direct care, support staff, and administrative staff. With that goal, we’ve partnered with The Harris Poll to conduct a national, comprehensive workforce survey.

The research will help us better understand the current state of the behavioral health care workforce, what’s working and what’s not, and measure support for potential solutions. It will also serve as a benchmark for the National Council to measure change over time, identify where and how things are improving, and continue to collect data that helps keep this issue both top-of-mind and backed by data and evidence.

We will look closely at specifics like job engagement, job satisfaction, and meaning from this work; likelihood to stay in the field or not and why or why not; challenges experienced in the field and the impact on their ability to provide care; and levels of support for policy ideas that could alleviate workforce shortages and attract more people into the profession.

By the time you read this issue of JBHS&R, the results of the survey will be available on our website at www.TheNationalCouncil.org. I hope you’ll take a few moments to review our findings.

As part of my reflection, it’s my habit to find connections between what I’ve written and the articles in the current issue of JBHS&R. I find it interesting that in this issue, there is no direct link to the workforce, yet everything written relates to our workforce, the people who comprise our field and how they practice healing.

I’m encouraged by an increased focus on diversity and its profound impact on our clients and our workforce. In this issue, we look at racial and ethnic disparities,2 examine the special challenges of Latinx caretakers,3 and also look at the dangers of bias in clinical decision-making.4 We also recognize how communities differ and how our responses must acknowledge and embrace those differences, from US veterans5 to those living in rural communities.6

Research expands and clarifies the view from our window. It sheds light in the dark corners of our view, forces ideas from the shadows, and helps us understand the world that exists beyond our four walls.

The results of the research are shaping the future of our field, and surveys, like those I’ve touched upon here, are just one of the many tools that will help us understand the challenges facing behavioral health organizations and, more importantly, how we can position ourselves to support our members in the face of these challenges. The National Council will use all the tools available to support and safeguard the work and the people who are on the frontlines and are making a difference for so many.