According to a report by the Institute of Medicine (IOM), the health arm of the National Academy of Sciences that seeks to ask and answer the nation’s most pressing health care questions, nearly 1 in 5 older Americans currently have one or more mental health and substance use conditions. With the number of adults age 65 and older projected to increase from 40 million in 2010 to over 70 million by 2030, the need for a larger mental health workforce has become increasingly apparent.
The nation’s policy makers have been warned for decades that the healthcare workforce in the United States is ill-equipped in the disciplines of mental health and substance use to adequately handle the rapidly-growing needs of the aging population.
In 2008, the IOM was asked by the Department of Health and Human Services to conduct a study on geriatric mental health and substance use. The IOM assembled an expert committee which evaluated the needs of senior adults and the healthcare workers that serve them. The committee reported that the “magnitude of inadequate workforce training and personnel shortages have grown to such proportions that no single approach, nor a few isolated changes in disparate federal agencies or programs, can adequately address the issue. Overcoming these challenges will require focused and coordinated action by all.”
The IOM committee found that in general, the number of individuals entering fields related to geriatric mental health and substance use is frighteningly small. Specialists who have been trained to handle mental health and substance use cases are in high demand but short supply.
As a result, the IOM committee urged Congress to fund the National Health Care Workforce Commission which, under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA), serves as a national resource for meeting the needs of health care workers. One of the commission’s top priorities would be developing and improving the recruitment and retention of geriatric mental health and substance use personnel. They have also urged Congress to appropriate funds for the ACA workforce to help with training, scholarships and loan forgiveness for individuals who are preparing to work with the aging population with mental health and substance use conditions.
Students with an interest in medicine and a desire to help those who suffer from mental health conditions now have the opportunity to follow a career path that can lead to job stability in a worthwhile field.