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New CVIT program focuses on training mental health technicians

The Cobre Valley Institute of Technology is expanding its offerings in the healthcare fields this fall by adding mental and social health training, in an effort to help address growing worker shortages in the field.

Citing a need for mental health professionals across the country, and specifically in Arizona, CVIT Central Campus Counselor Aja DeZeeuw says the Mental and Social Health Technician program comes in response to what is widely considered to be an ongoing crisis of care.

The program will be part of CVIT’s Health Technology offerings and students who participate will gain several benefits, including the groundwork for a certificate in other fields, such as medical and nurse technology. It will also provide a CPR certificate to help satisfy high school graduation requirements.

The program holds particular personal interest for DeZeeuw, as she has devoted her professional life to mental health care and counseling and wants to help destigmatize it for students who may need help but hesitate to seek it out.

“One thing that we are seeing across the country is that students are more comfortable and more willing to ask for help,” DeZeeuw says. “That stigma is starting to break down because they’re starting to realize that they’re not alone. To me this is a positive thing and, hopefully, this generation is going to try to make changes in the realms of mental health, but also not be afraid to go and seek help if they need it.”

She adds that the classes are as much about helping students in their own lives as well as offering a career path in a much-needed field.

DeZeeuw was brought into CVIT in the wake of the COVID pandemic to help students who were struggling to deal with the fallout from that period. Her role went beyond CVIT and into the classrooms of rural Arizona schools that do not have counseling services available.

CVIT Central Campus Counselor Aja DeZeeuw.

Throughout her two years at CVIT, she has seen with her own eyes and heard reports from other school counselors about problems students who seek help encounter, such as long wait times for care, even if they are experiencing a crisis.

“It’s really hard to even get them to admit that they need help and need to talk to somebody, so when you finally convince them it’s important to get them that care,” DeZeeuw says. “I have contacts with a lot of other counselors around the state and all of us, especially those in rural areas, basically say the same thing, that there’s a six week waitlist.”

She adds that by the time they get to that point, students or their parents often just give up.

“It’s taken them so much courage to just say yes, and then at that point, they just feel defeated, and say they don’t even want to bother,” she says.

Organizations such as the American Psychological Association, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) and the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) have warned of an expanding need for psychological and counseling services, particularly in the wake of the COVID pandemic, warning of an impending crisis due to a shortage of workers in the mental healthcare sector.

According to a September 23, 2023 report in Psychology Today, approximately 47% of the population of the U.S. live in an area with a shortage of mental health workers and nearly half the population suffers from some sort of mental health issues from depression and anxiety to substance abuse.

“The shortage of mental health professionals is particularly prominent in rural areas and economically stressed cities,” the report states. “Counties outside of metropolitan areas have one-third the supply of psychiatrists and half the supply of psychologists in urban areas.”

Additionally, many of those citizens have no access to care due to the structure of the healthcare industry and the hesitancy of insurance providers in that sector. The problem has only been exacerbated by COVID, increasing anxiety and substance abuse in the overall population, straining an already stressed healthcare delivery system.

The Department of Labor estimates annual projected growth of the sector in the state of Arizona through 2030 will be 44% for mental health and substance abuse social workers—510 projected job openings annually; 54% for substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors—1,170 projected; 48% for psychiatric/behavioral health technicians—540 projected, and 25% in the child, family, and school social workers field with 800 projected job openings annually throughout the state.

“The bottom line is this is a huge field with lots of career prospects locally,” DeZeeuw says. “This program is listed on the ‘in-demand’ Gila County CTE list, meaning that it is a program we can offer at least the first year of to students in their 13th year—meaning recent graduates. If any students graduating this year are interested, they can apply and if they’re approved, we can support them in the first year of the program with CVIT funding.”

The course includes a combination of introductory classes taught by DeZeeuw and classes that already exist in the other health fields.

Students will learn basics of the physiology of the brain, cognitive development, mental and social health illnesses, disorders and conditions, as well as communication skills and problem solving.

The accrediting body is the Arizona Department of Education and the curriculum is approved by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) as being a research based, evidence based program.

Students who complete the program will also receive a Psychological First Aid certification through the National Child Traumatic Stress Network.

“Our students will end up with psychological first aid, and they’ll take CPR and First Aid along with the nursing assistant and medical assistant students,” DeZeeuw says. “If they get into this, and they decide two-thirds of the way through that it’s not for them, they’ll actually have the medical certificate background so they could pivot into one of the medical fields.”

The Mental and Social Health Technician program will begin as a three-semester program, but has the potential to expand should it be a successful as DeZeeuw thinks it will be.

“Even if somebody isn’t necessarily interested in pursuing this as a career, there’s a lot of great information that can help a student either themselves or with somebody they love,” she says. “We’re going to talk about substance abuse, maladaptive coping skills, those types of things that really can benefit anybody in life. It’s a great start, if somebody’s interested in pursuing this as a major, but it’s also just going to be good information.”

Applications for all CVIT programs for the 2024-25 school year, including this one, are now open. Interested students can contact DeZeeuw at AdeZeeuw@cvit81.org, or by phone at 480-204-0325 for more information.

About David Abbott

Journalist, writer and editor who has worked for community newspapers for more than 15 years. After four years at Davis-Monthan AFB and a few years living in Tucson, moved to California to find his fortune. He is happy to be back in Arizona, in the mountains he loves.

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