Ministry of Mental Health faces labor shortage


The Missouri Department of Mental Health is looking to address workforce shortages in the next legislative session – a theme common to many state agencies.

In a hearing on Wednesday, DMH’s leadership discussed its operations and current challenges with the House subcommittee on mental health policy research.

The main challenge within mental health facilities across the state is maintaining a workforce, said Nora Bock, DMH’s director for behavioral health.

“Our crisis in facilities is our people,” Bock said. “There are a lot of people in the economy now who have to put food on the table and pay rent and child care, and they have to go where the money is – and the byproduct of not being mistreated cannot be emphasized enough. “

Bock said the department currently had more departures than hires, and that there was a shortage of healthcare workers and nurses nationwide due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Northwestern Missouri Psychiatric Rehabilitation Center, DMH’s 108-bed psychiatric hospital providing long-term inpatient care to adults, has the most nursing vacancies, said DMH director Mark Stringer .

The facility has 74 percent of its RN positions vacant and 56 percent of the RN positions vacant.

“How do you run a hospital like this?” Stringer asked.

The majority of staff nurses are PRN nurses, who function as independent nurses who work for hospitals whenever needed. They often cost more than hiring a full-time nurse or LPN.

The main problem, the department’s leadership said, is its low wages.

The starting salary for a psychiatric technician is $ 11.78 an hour, Stringer said, while the starting salary for a nurse is $ 67,000 per year.

DMH deputy director Valerie Huhn said the department cannot compete when competitors are currently paying starting salaries of at least $ 80,000 for nurses.

“Salaries are not competitive,” Bock said. “And there is a gap in their lack of competitiveness. “

In addition to earning less than his counterparts elsewhere, Bock said frontline staff at DMH are sometimes exposed to physical and verbal abuse from the patients they work with and do not have regular work schedules. with consistent hours of rest.

Stringer said the department also has many employees working mandatory overtime.

“What happens is, yeah, you could work an eight to 12 hour shift and then the supervising nurse comes in and says, ‘Sorry, but we’re going to need you to stay because whoever was supposed to coming to replace you is not coming, ”Stringer said. “Again, if your kid has a ball game that night or something, it’s a crusher. And it tires people out and our environments become less safe. “

Many lawmakers on the committee expressed support for trying to help DMH overcome its staffing gaps and offered ideas for legislative actions that could be taken, such as assessing residency requirements for universities. state and additional funding for nurse education programs.

Some representatives of the House Health and Mental Health Policy Committee were also present at the hearing and expressed support.

“We can fight for you,” said State Representative Dale Wright, R-Farmington. “We spent more money last year because of COVID and other things. We can take advantage of it and help you. It touches – I don’t know of a family in this condition that hasn’t been impacted by behavioral health, so now is the time to do something about it.

DMH is not alone in focusing on the labor shortage.

State agencies such as the Department of Corrections and the Department of Transportation are also working to address their staffing shortages with higher salaries.

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