MHARI: State lacks diversity among mental health workers

PROVIDENCE – The Mental Health Association of Rhode Island on Thursday said the state needs a more diverse pool of behavioral health care workers to better match the population served.

The association cited results of a survey it conducted last year of 749 licensed behavioral health professionals, most of whom were white.

“The survey demonstrates that Rhode Island’s behavioral health provider pool is not culturally reflective of the population it is serving,” association board member Sandra Victorino said in a statement. “The biggest challenge for Rhode Islanders is access to behavioral health care. Our recommendations … could help to build a stronger, more adequate network of diverse providers that’s needed to help ensure more timely access to care.”

The association is calling for academic reforms to address inequities faced by Black, Indigenous and people of color in standardized testing and in access to academic programs, along with increased financial aid and mentoring for such students.

- Advertisement -

The association is also calling for statewide data collection to track Rhode Island’s progress in making the state pool of behavioral health workers more diverse.

Approximately 85% of survey respondents identified themselves as white. Of nearly 32,000 clients served by the state mental health agency in 2020, 68% were white, 12% were Black and 3.5% were multiracial, according to the report, overseen by Dr. Ernestine Jennings, a research scientist at The Miriam Hospital and a professor at Brown University’s Warren Alpert Medical School.

The association acknowledged that it is unclear whether its survey sample is demographically representative of Rhode Island’s entire behavioral health provider pool but said the report identifies a clear gap in diversity between respondents and the clients they serve.

The survey also found problems with “insurance barriers experienced by both providers and patients.” Six in 10 respondents reported they had stopped seeing a patient at least once in the past year due to lack of insurance, claim denials or other related issues.

The association is recommending higher reimbursement rates for behavioral health providers.

“Overall, the insights of providers gathered through this survey demonstrate the need for a robust commitment to mental health parity,” said association Executive Director Laurie-Marie Pisciotta. “Narrow provider networks, insufficient coverage and suffocating costs continue to prevent Rhode Islanders from getting the care they need and place a cumbersome burden on an overtaxed workforce.”