The University of Alaska Anchorage School of Social Work plans to significantly increase the number of students it can accept each year as a way of addressing what experts describe as a shortage of mental and behavioral health providers across the state.
The expansion, which will take place over the next five years, is made possible by a $1.5 million grant announced this week by the University of Alaska Anchorage and Recover Alaska. The funders include Rasmuson Foundation, Premera Blue Cross Blue Shield of Alaska, Providence Alaska, Southcentral Foundation, the Anchorage Assembly, Alaska Department of Health and the Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority.
The idea for the grant came out of recent brainstorming sessions between mental health providers and philanthropists around Alaska, said Tiffany Hall, executive director of Recover Alaska, a nonprofit dedicated to addressing alcohol and substance misuse in the state.
“It started out as, you know, what should we do for people who are trying to get help, and don’t know where to go,” Hall said in an interview.
“Someone else said, ‘should be there be a call line?’ and then someone else said, ‘that won’t help, because we don’t have anywhere to send them because there’s such long wait lists.’ And so someone else asked, ‘why is that?’ And it’s because we don’t have enough qualified providers in the state.’”
Debbie Craig, dean of the UAA College of Health said she hopes the funding will help address the dearth of qualified behavioral and mental health providers that mirrors national trends.
Craig cited recent workforce projection data in Alaska that predicted social work would grow by about 10% in the next decade, or about 195 more jobs.
Increased anxiety, depression and other mental health challenges have increased the demand for qualified mental health providers, Craig said.
“And then at the same time, over the past two to three years, probably largely due to the pandemic, we’re losing about 108 social workers every year,” she said.
More in-state social workers will also help address high rates of substance misuse in Alaska, said Hall.
Alaska leads the nation in alcohol-attributed deaths, with nearly 1 out of 10 deaths in the state caused by use, according to a four-year study published by JAMA Network Open this month.
The money will eventually give the school the ability to accept around 85 students a year after a slow rollout, starting with five to 10 new students beginning next fall, said
She said the funding would initially be used to hire more staff and faculty members to accommodate increased class sizes. Until now, the school has only been able to accept 35 students per year.
“We’re going to implement this slowly but surely,” Craig said.