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April 14, 2024

Bill would expand mental, behavioral treatment education offerings at SOU

Victor Chang, associate professor of clinical mental health counseling at SOU, is looking at at a state bill that could expand his department and increase the number of students graduating in the mental and behavioral health care fields. Rogue Valley Times photo by Jamie Lusch
June 2, 2023

$2.5M appropriation would create institute focused on behavioral health

By Erick Bengel, Rogue Valley Times

A bill moving through the Oregon Legislature would grow the number of Southern Oregon University graduates trained to provide mental and behavioral health treatment in a region where help can be hard to come by.

HB 3274 would appropriate $2.5 million from the general fund for the university to create an institute focused on behavioral health education, a field that covers addiction treatment and often mental health care.

Chiefly sponsored by state Sen. Jeff Golden, D-Ashland; state Rep. Pam Marsh, D-Ashland; and state Rep. Lily Morgan, R-Grants Pass, the bill seeks to address the dearth of counselors, social workers, psychiatrists and other clinicians in the Rogue Valley and across Oregon.

“We have throughout the region, and throughout the state, a behavioral workforce challenge,” said Dr. Victor Chang, associate professor in the university’s clinical mental health counseling master’s program. Chang has submitted written testimony supporting the bill. “And so it’s really hard to fill, for most agencies out there, all the positions they have for mental health counselors.”

Dr. Kerri Hecox, medical director at the Oasis Center of the Rogue Valley, said, “We definitely need more mental health and substance use disorder counselors in the area. There’s a significant shortage.”

How the money will be spent — and what the institute will look like — is not yet clear.

The university has talked about expanding Chang’s program by hiring more faculty.

“Our program’s always been competitive, and we receive many more applicants who are seeking admission to our program than we can possibly take in any given year,” Chang said.

While this means the program can be selective, it also means the program can only graduate about 20 to 23 new counselors every year, Chang said.

“The region and the whole state could use far more,” he said.

The institute may also include a master’s of social work program in partnership with Portland State University. PSU had a satellite program in social work at SOU that was dissolved in 2020.

The bill mentions possible fellowships that would offer a “debt-free pathway to graduation for students pursuing behavioral and mental health degrees.”

For many would-be councilors, the loan debt they must incur to get their degrees presents a hurdle, said Jeanne Stallman, the university’s associate vice president of government relations and outreach, who helped conceive the bill.

“What we’re after is trying to open that door up so people who have the interest, the talent to go into this work can do that without the worry of crushing student debt,” Stallman said.

In addition, the money could help expand the university’s micro-credential that currently gives K-12 educators and staff baseline skills in mental and behavioral health counseling. They cannot provide treatment, but learn how to spot signs of struggle in their students.

The university hopes to offer the micro-credential to other professionals — in places like higher education and in law enforcement — who often encounter people with addiction or mental health issues, said Daniel DeNeui, the university’s associate provost and director of graduate studies.

Interns may also have opportunities to work with populations of high need — such as “rural, veteran or homeless individuals” — through partnerships between the university and community groups, the bill says.

HB 3274 has been assigned to the Joint Committee on Ways and Means, which has yet to release the bill to the Education Subcommittee.

If HB 3274 reaches the floor, it is unknown whether the bill, and many others, will get a vote.

Many Senate Republicans and one Independent senator have refused to show up and provide the two-thirds quorum necessary to vote on legislation. The protest — now in its fourth week — is meant to prevent passage of Democrat-supported legislation, particularly bills on gun control, abortion access and gender-affirming care.

The window to pass those bills, along with the bipartisan HB 3274, closes June 25, when the Oregon Legislative session ends.

“If this bill ends up languishing because of the walkout of Republicans in the state Senate, it would be a tremendous blow to being able to help the region, help SOU and just help the cause of meeting the behavioral health needs of the entire state,” Chang said, “and that would be really unfortunate.

“And,” he added, “the responsibility for that is squarely on Republicans for not doing their work in the Senate.”

Reach reporter Erick Bengel at ebengel@rv-times.com or 458-488-2031. This story first appeared in the Rogue Valley Times.

Bert Etling

Bert Etling

Bert Etling is the executive editor of Ashland.news. Email him at betling@ashland.news.

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