The dignity of mental health workers

Publication date: 6/23/2020 8:04:20 PM

Modified date: 06/23/2022 8:01:58 PM

I love my job. I love working with children, teens and adults as a community mental health clinician in Greenfield. But sometimes when I see my salary, I wonder, “What do I do?”

I proudly work for a community mental health agency, and this work is incredibly purposeful and challenging. Many of the stories I hear every day express the depth of human suffering: racism, poverty, physical and emotional pain, abuse and neglect. It is my responsibility to make decisions about whether a teen’s suicidal ideation is serious enough to call crisis services. I find emergency housing for my clients. I guide them through getting a restraining order and using EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) therapy to help them process past trauma.

I am passionate about supporting people to feel happier and more involved in the world, but my salary is too low, and it is difficult for me and many others in my field to take time off in order to take care of our well-being. I have a master’s degree in Counseling Psychology, 15 years of experience, and am licensed here in Massachusetts, yet I make more than just a target or worker at Amazon. In 2015, the legislature recognized critical mental health needs in our state and fully funded Chapter 257—the budget line item that supports human services agencies here in Massachusetts.

In these past seven years, the Commonwealth has pumped more than $815 million into human service agencies just like my own. However, this huge investment somehow has not made its way to the people who lead them: their workers. Why has my salary barely improved when all this money is pouring in? Why are there so many jobs in my clinic when the state has given agencies like mine so much money. It’s very simple: low salaries. There isn’t enough government funding making its way to direct care workers like me. In fact, the average starting salary for a direct care worker in Massachusetts, who works full time, is just $34,050 per year.

I treat clients dealing with a wide range of distressing and heart-breaking situations, which have been exacerbated during the pandemic. My co-workers and I have worked hard during this time to support struggling families with their children trying to learn at home, encourage people to stay clean and sober when the world seemed to be in decline, and show up every week to people who were lonely and depressed or paralyzed by anxiety about getting sick. .

Our work keeps people alive, keeps them out of hospitals, and keeps kids learning. Every time I listen to the news, there are stories about the huge need for more mental health workers. But like many other “essential workers,” my colleagues and I are emotionally stressed, underpaid, and financially stressed. And we’re leaving community mental health clinics because of it. When therapists leave because they cannot afford to stay, the trusted relationship with clients is broken, treatment is interrupted, and clients often have to wait a long time to be reappointed.

But there is a way to tackle this workforce crisis. I strongly support Chapter 257 reform by requiring that at least 75% of new government funding go directly to wages and benefits for frontline workers. It is logical. Over the next few weeks, the conference committee will consider the Chapter 257 reform and decide whether to draw up the final budget.

Now is the time to inform our leaders that Chapter 257 funding should be directed toward the wages of human service workers who work directly with clients. Higher wages will allow community health clinics to attract new staff and retain the staff we already have. By giving community health center workers a living wage, we can ensure that the quality of care for each patient is fair — whether they go to a state-funded community mental health center or a practice-specific counseling. Currently, a very large number of our customers are affected by the high turnover rates in our industry.

I am optimistic despite the challenges and I believe we can do better. I dream of a time when a person who needs mental health support can easily find quality care in their community. Fixing Chapter 257 will bring us a little closer to this reality.

Shannon Gamble is a licensed mental health practitioner in Greenfield.