Partnering for Behavioral Health in Rural Northeast and North-Central Nebraska: Workforce Programs and Services

May 2019
Partnering for Behavioral Health in Rural Northeast and North-Central Nebraska

Network Name

Partnering for Behavioral Health in Rural Northeast and North-Central Nebraska

Location Norfolk, NE
Key Contact Jon Bailey
Facebook Page
Mission Through collaborations with diverse and experienced organizations, institutions, and individuals, improve quality of life for people in northeast and north-central Nebraska by facilitating expanded access to behavioral health services, by assisting in behavioral health professional placements, by increasing awareness of behavioral health issues, and by educating communities on behavioral health needs.

Improve the quality of life of residents of northeast and north-central Nebraska. Be a model for access to behavioral health services in rural areas.

Constantly improving the behavioral health of northern Nebraska. To be recognized as a leader in improving behavioral health. Better behavioral health in northeast and north-central Nebraska. 

Jon Bailey, Network Director of Partnering for Behavioral Health in Rural Northeast and Northcentral Nebraska, was interviewed by the Network TA team discussing their workforce programs and services.

In a nutshell, how would you describe your network?

Our network is working to expand behavioral health services in a 24-county region of rural Nebraska. Our goal is to have more providers in our region. As part of our work, we have learned that we need to dedicate a lot of time and energy to raising awareness of behavioral health issues, including the challenges our region is facing and potential ways that communities can address these challenges.

What types of organizations are you partnering with?

Our network members include a public health department, a Federally Qualified Health Center (FQHC), Area Health Education Center (AHEC), regional behavioral health system, University of Nebraska Medical Center College of Nursing, and the Ponca Tribe of Nebraska.

Additional partnership relationships we have built during this grant period include hospitals, clinics, K-12 school districts, and Wayne State College.

What network accomplishments are you most proud of?

I’m most proud of the work we’ve done to bring people together to talk about behavioral health in their communities. We invited people to be part of community work groups and received positive responses from a wide range of interested parties: Schools, hospitals, providers, public health departments, ministerial alliances, and others – all of whom encounter people with behavioral health needs on a regular basis.

When we work with these groups, we learn about their most pressing problems and discuss ways that the network can help them address these challenges. We make it clear that the network is here to help by serving as a facilitator to help them develop plans that they can implement in their area.

I’m also very proud of the partnerships we’ve developed. At the beginning of this grant period, network members had already worked together for several years, so their relationship was already strong. The network hadn’t worked before with the partners listed above, however. We recognized the importance of bringing them into our work, so we reached out and asked them to work with us.

The new partnership that may have the most potential is our relationship with Wayne State College. The college president is very supportive of our work. After our initial meeting, she established a task force around behavioral health careers. This has the potential to really pay off in terms of workforce development. Research shows that students are likely to stay in the region where they receive their education, and if we can generate interest in behavioral health careers with our high school students and provide a place for them to receive their education through Wayne State, we can significantly increase our region’s pool of behavioral health professionals. We’ve spent a lot of time talking to students at all 71 high schools in our region to educate them on career opportunities in the behavioral health field.

What are your biggest challenges?

Geography is definitely our biggest challenge. We serve a huge area with a lot of needs, and it’s hard to think about meeting the needs of such a large region. We have to have a continuous pep talk with ourselves to focus on what we can do, because we can’t solve every problem. We have to have good evaluation measures and good planning -- what are the best strategies we can use to bring the most help to the most people? We also have to focus on bringing the right partners on board, because the more partners we have the more we can accomplish.

Our network has also faced a challenge to the assumptions we had going into the grant project. In conversations with organizations who hire behavioral health professionals, we discovered that the positions they’re primarily hiring for weren’t what we expected. Instead of hiring licensed professionals, there’s more of a focus on hiring unlicensed staff like Community Health Workers (CHWs) and Behavioral Health Aides.

Outside forces are influencing this trend. Nebraska has poor reimbursement rates for behavioral health services, and many employers lack the financial resources to support staff with higher-level credentials. These types of policy questions are affecting the direction of our network more than we expected.

Our region is one of the largest, most prosperous agricultural areas in the US. Recent economic issues (trade and low commodity prices) combined with the recent historic flooding have led to the fear of major behavioral/mental health issues among farm and ranch families. It's difficult enough to get farmers and ranchers to seek help for behavioral/mental health issues, but the lack of providers in our area exacerbates the problem. We have been using our social media platforms and working with our partners to get the word out to farm and ranch families about behavioral/mental health issues, what to look out for, and resources to address them. With the large number of farmers/ranchers and their families in our region this promises to be a major and long-lasting issue for our region.

What advice would you give to other network leaders?

In my 20 years working in rural public policy development, the principal lesson I’ve learned is that nothing good happens in rural areas without partners. The issues are too big, the area is too big, and there are never enough resources. Most people in rural areas recognize this, which makes it a bit easier – we don’t usually have to work too hard to convince someone to partner with us.

Also – continually listen to your communities to learn more about what they need. Their needs aren’t always what we assume they are.

Another piece of advice is to take advantage of all the TA offered by RHI. As grantees, we have access to multiple valuable learning opportunities.  Take everything that’s offered. If there’s something even remotely relevant to what you’re doing, sign up for it.

It’s difficult to be a network leader. We’re working to address festering problems that have existed for years and now we’re trying to play catchup to address them. Keep going and have faith that you’re doing something to help your communities and neighbors in a really meaningful way.  

What role do you see networks playing in population health?

If you have the right partners and strong relationships, you’re able to address population health questions from a lot of different viewpoints. Different entities in the community all want to end up at the same place: A healthy, thriving community. Each entity plays a different role and may have a different view of the best way to achieve it. When a network brings the right partners to the table, the community can come at the common goal from all different perspectives and end up having success.

What workforce-related programs and services does your network offer to its members?

Our primary service is our placement system. We didn’t want to replicate what’s already being done by existing job boards, so we decided to take a more direct route. If an employer in our region has a mental or behavioral health job opening, we send the information to the appropriate schools who then pass it on to their students. We leave the potential employment relationship to the student and employer.

The network has an active social media presence. As workforce-related information comes out from the state, we share that information on our social media networks. This helps spread awareness about workforce shortages in our region.

We bring educational resources to the region as well. Beacon Behavioral Health Educational Center at the University of Nebraska does a lot of work with workforce issues in the state, and we’ve brought them in to do a few workshops. We also host an annual conference at Wayne State College.

We’ve been visiting local high schools to tell them about careers in behavioral health. We include information about paying for college, targeting both students and parents. We have visited almost every high school in our region, and will continue to do this every year as more kids become juniors and seniors. This won’t pay off right away – we see this as a longer-term investment of our time.

How did your network come to the decision to address workforce issues in your area?

Several years ago our FQHC and public health department came to the collective realization that a large majority of their patients had a diagnosed behavioral health issue, and the FQHC had no behavioral health providers on their staff. They gathered other partners together to talk about it and found that others were having the same experience, so they started a coalition to address it.

How do you see workforce programs impacting your network’s long-term sustainability?

These programs will be crucial to sustainability. Workforce challenges have been a long time in the making and may be with us forever. Working on them is definitely to the benefit of the communities and residents, and I think it makes a good argument for the sustainability of our network and other networks facing similar issues.