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Can the state’s new behavioral health centers impact care?

Jennifer Knight-Levine said the state’s new Community Behavioral Health Centers were a great idea — but she’s not sure how much impact they’ll have on the mental health care crisis.

“They will absolutely serve the needs of many of our community members,” said Knight-Levine, executive director of the SAFE Coalition, an organization which focuses on troubled teens. “I think the most challenging piece is getting the staff hired to really run and fulfill all of those community needs.”

For that reason, Knight-Levine doesn’t predict a massive impact on wait times for clinical appointments — as there’s only so much that can be done with only so many people.

And it seems no number of community health centers can realistically impact what is set to become a chronic problem in the US — a shortage of mental health care professionals. The American Association of Medical Colleges reports that in the coming years, the US could be 15 – 30,000 short on psychiatrists. This will impact the ranks of other clinicians, he says, such as psychologists and social workers.

The AAMC predicts a shortage because, for one thing, the majority of psychiatrists are aged 55+. And there are not a huge number of slots for clinical residency programs that train new psychiatrists.

Still, the new Behavioral Health Centers in Massachusetts — of which there are 29 — are promising walk-in as well as scheduled appointments — and 24/7 crisis services. Knight-Levine said the latter should not be taken as an indication of waiting times will necessarily improve.

” When someone calls 911 and they need a crisis level of care, that need may be met,” she said. “It’s everything after that, that we still see a long waiting list for.”

One of the state’s behavioral health centers is in Cambridge, run by the Cambridge Health Alliance. Sarah Stoddard-Gunn, LICSW, is program leader for the behavioral health crisis service. She says the demand for mental health care services has been intense — and she’s particularly noticed the many referrals of children for help.

“There are some days when we are busy from the moment we open the doors to the moment we close the doors,” she said.

Asked whether there is concern the centers could become victims of their own success, Stoddard-Gunn said: “We’re constantly talking about that and worrying about that. We’ve been lucky that we’ve been able to hire a lot of staff.”

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