George Mason University was among the six Virginia universities awarded a Higher Education Mental Health Workforce Pilot grant to improve mental health services available to students.
The State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV) and the Virginia Health Care Foundation (VHCF) designated Mason, Christopher Newport, James Madison, Longwood, Radford and Virginia Tech as recipients of the grant awards designed to better address student mental health needs by alleviating the shortage of licensed mental health therapists on campuses.
Each grant award will underwrite the salary and benefits of an onsite Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) or Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) candidate for two years. The hosting universities will hire, train and supervise the LCSW/LPC candidates to work at on-campus mental health care facilities until licensed.
The pilot serves the dual purpose of expanding mental health services to students on the campus of each institution and increasing the mental health workforce pipeline overall by offering supervised clinical hours for candidates who seek to become LCSWs or LPCs.
“The intent of the grant is to expand the number of mental health care professionals,” said Rachel Wernicke, the associate dean and chief mental health officer from University Life. “We have a lot of need, but don’t have enough mental health professionals to respond.”
The grant means that Mason will be able to enhance the behavioral health program at Student Health Services with the addition of a full-time resident-in-counseling. The additional staff member will join a team of two full-time counselors, two graduate counselors and the one consulting psychiatrist. Mason officials expect to have the new resident-in-counseling on the job during the spring semester.
“This is the most recent in a series of steps we have taken to expand the mental health services for our students,” said Chris Rzengota, the associate director of behavioral health at Student Health Services, who wrote the successful grant proposal. “The new staff member will help ensure accessible behavioral health care at Student Health Services.”
Earlier this year, the Virginia General Assembly responded to the critical mental health needs of students by appropriating $500,000 annually for the next two years to support the mental health workforce pilot at selected state public four-year institutions.
This move strengthens Mason’s commitment to student mental health. In October, Mason launched TimelyCare platform, a 24/7 virtual extension of campus counseling center resources to improve student well-being, engagement, and retention.
According to a 2021 study, 40% of surveyed postsecondary students nationwide reported having a mental health disorder. The demand has been compounded in Virginia, where 70% of the state is designated as a Mental Health Professional Shortage Area (MHPSA).
“The General Assembly’s creation of the Higher Education Mental Health Workforce Pilot is an important and creative approach to resolving the shortage of licensed mental-health therapists and to meeting the surge of mental health struggles of college students,” said VHCF Director Debbie Oswalt.