Hansen Foundation grant will help grow regional mental health work force

High Plains Mental Health Center

High Plains Mental Health Center is pleased to announce a grant from the Dane G. Hansen Foundation, Logan, Kan., will allow staff members to advance their educations and help grow the regional mental health workforce in the midst of unprecedented need for services. The Foundation has awarded scholarships to three current High Plains staff members, who will pursue Master’s of Social Work degrees at Fort Hays State University with the intention to become full-time therapists in Northwest Kansas after completing the program.

“We are incredibly grateful for the Hansen Foundation’s generous support and assistance in increasing access to mental health services in Northwest Kansas,” said Walt Hill, executive director of High Plains. “We believe this project will make a significant difference in the lives of our staff and in helping us address workforce shortages that have hindered our ability to expand services.”

A shortage of mental health professionals has been a significant barrier in rural Kansas, where the availability of qualified work force is declining, even as the need for community mental health services is increasing. According to information from FHSU, approximately 12 percent of the Kansas population lives in western Kansas. However, less than 5 percent of mental health professionals live and work in the western half of the state. The number of clients served by High Plains has increased significantly since 2017, with nearly 6,700 clients served in 2020 – the highest number in the agency’s 57-year history. Experts in the mental health field are concerned the need for services will continue to grow in the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic due to increased stress, isolation and grief experienced by many.

Recruiting a sufficient number of mental health professionals to meet increasing levels of need has been difficult, partly due to fewer college students pursuing careers in mental health and increased workforce competition in urban areas – which often can offer higher salaries, Hill said. Turnover rates are often high, but High Plains has seen success with previous “grow your own” workforce initiatives, he said.

“We have found that employees who have ties to the region are more likely to have lengthy careers at High Plains. We are so thankful for the Hansen Foundation providing an opportunity to invest in three of our dedicated and skilled staff members, so they can continue investing their time and talent in our Northwest Kansas communities,” Hill said.

A $37,500 Hansen scholarship fund will provide the staff members with $7,500 of tuition assistance per year for up to two years – the duration of FHSU’s new MSW program. The staff members will be obligated to continue working at High Plains for a few years in exchange for the scholarship funding. The three staff members involved in the program are Meriah Escarcega, Carmen Morales and Mandy Stock, all of whom have years of experience working in various capacities at High Plains. 

Meriah is a Recovery Specialist based in Hays and has a bachelor’s in psychology from FHSU. She said she has always known she wanted a career in mental health or substance use counseling, but she wasn’t sure if pursuing a master’s degree would be within her reach financially. She will begin her MSW studies in August and hopes to become an outpatient therapist.

“I want to practice as a therapist and work more directly with clients in a way that I can help them,” she said. “There is such a stigma regarding mental health and I want to be a part of helping people understand that it is OK if they need therapy, even if it is just to vent every so often.”

Mandy is a Recovery Specialist based in Osborne who also will begin her MSW studies at FHSU this fall. She is a mother of three, and finished her bachelor’s degree in 2015. Shortly after, she began her job at High Plains.

“When I came to High Plains to work in mental health as a Recovery Specialist three years ago, I felt things ‘click’ with my personal strengths, my work and my interests all lining up for the first time,” Mandy said. “I love what we get to do, helping people to live their best lives. I am passionate about working with families and children, in particular.”

Carmen has worked at High Plains for six years and also currently serves as a Recovery Specialist based in Hays. She is bilingual and said she hopes to help increase access to mental health services for the Spanish-speaking population in Northwest Kansas. 

“I chose social work as my career because I wanted to make a difference in people’s lives and help vulnerable populations,” she said. “I also wanted to further my education to be able to close the gap in services for the Spanish-speaking population in Western Kansas who struggle to reach out for services due to language barriers and cultural stigma.”