Ballmer Group gifts $38 million to address behavioral health

Gifts aim to bolster workforce, resources across Washington through UW-led programs including Harborview's Behavioral Health Institute.

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The University of Washington today announced that the School of Social Work and Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, and the Behavioral Health Institute at Harborview Medical Center are part of a transformational $38 million set of gifts from Ballmer Group to support a broad, collaborative response to the state’s behavioral health crisis.

The gifts aim to address the state of Washington’s serious workforce shortage in the community behavioral health system, in large part by supporting statewide education and training innovations at partner institutions developed through the University of Washington. The new grants come on the heels of Gov. Jay Inslee’s historic behavioral health bill signing Thursday, which recognized the severity of the crisis and celebrated new investments.

“As governor it has been a priority to address our state’s outdated behavioral health system. Behavioral health is health care and the impacts of the pandemic made it that more urgent we improve the system,” Gov. Inslee said. “The package of legislation I signed this week – combined with the tremendous support of organizations like the Ballmer Group and their work with our state agencies and the University of Washington – is all part of that process to get greater access to behavioral health for more people.”

“Developing and providing statewide resources, care and expertise in behavioral health is critical to the long-term health of our state and our communities,” UW President Ana Mari Cauce said. “Ensuring people get the care they need to recover, especially at times of crisis, is absolutely critical for the health of our population. This bold investment by Ballmer Group to improve behavioral health care in our state puts us on a path to a truly healthy future.”

Washington state currently ranks among the lowest in the nation in serving people with mental health challenges. The needs are vast and far-reaching, with Washingtonians experiencing common mental health problems such as depression and anxiety, serious and persistent disorders such as autism and schizophrenia, or addiction to alcohol or other substances. In addition, nearly a quarter of adults with a mental illness reported not being able to access care, which is only being exacerbated by the COVID-19 crisis.

The state Legislature responded to the urgent need during its recently completed session with unprecedented investments in Washington’s behavioral health system. The Legislature’s commitments included $200.5 million for a new 150-bed behavioral health teaching facility on UW Medical Center’s Northwest campus, in addition to an expanded psychiatry residency program and a statewide 24/7 psychiatric consultation program. Legislators also designated nearly $170 million to support community behavior health providers, mobile crisis response teams throughout the state, intensive case management and Homeless Outreach Stabilization, and one-time relief to ease the financial impact of COVID on providers.

Ballmer Group’s gifts will complement these investments through innovative and transformational approaches to growing and strengthening the state’s behavioral health workforce.

“The behavioral health crisis is all too real, and while it affects everyone in our state, this reality is compounded for communities of color. The same inequities that plague every American institution apply to our behavioral health system, which is designed to cater to wealthy white people. Further complications of stigma, cost, and a fundamental lack of system capacity to meet the growing need are woven throughout our current behavioral health infrastructure,” said Connie Ballmer, co-founder of Ballmer Group. “That’s why we were proud to partner with the University of Washington, state leaders, providers to lay a foundation for shifting our system through addressing workforce capacity, access and equity.”

The UW School of Social Work will coordinate a major component of Ballmer Group’s investment, $24.8 million designed to expand the diversity and numbers of well-prepared, debt-relieved students graduating from the state’s master’s programs in social work and mental health counseling who go on to work in community-based behavioral health programs. These programs serve individuals and families who face poverty and severe, long-term mental health or substance-use challenges.

More than 400 graduate students from approximately 13 colleges and universities across the state will receive more than $21 million in financial assistance over the next five years, supporting a graduate-level clinical education that, for many, would not otherwise be financially feasible.

Participating graduate students will receive grants to offset the high costs of graduate education in-return for committing to work for three years in the behavioral health system. Participating graduate schools will partner closely with agencies to design clinical education tailored to meeting the needs of clients, strengthen student internships, and provide career placement and mentoring to support sustained careers in behavioral health services.

“Ballmer Group’s generous gift will assist hundreds of graduate students throughout the state and serve as a model for collaboration between higher education, the community, philanthropy and the public sector,” said Edwina S. Uehara, the Ballmer Endowed Dean in Social Work at the UW. “This investment will allow key partners to come together to address our state’s behavioral health needs from multiple angles and help to ensure greater health equity for communities of color and low-income families.”

More than $3 million will be used over five years to create an innovative training program for Behavioral Health Support Specialists (BHHS) for undergraduate students in colleges around the state of Washington in partnership with the UW Medicine Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences.

“We know how to help, and we need to make sure that those living with serious mental health and addiction problems have rapid access to safe and effective care,” said Dr. Jürgen Unützer, chair of the UW Medicine Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences. “And we need to pay special attention to historical inequities that leave communities of color and low-income families the least likely to get care.”

The Behavioral Health Institute at Harborview Medical Center will receive $8.5 million over three years. This includes:

  • $5.5 million to establish statewide behavioral-health apprenticeship programs for early- and mid-career professionals in collaboration with community partners, including the King County Executive’s Office and The SEIU Healthcare 1199NW Multi-Employer Training Fund.
  • Nearly $3 million to work closely with Washington State and community-partners on a redesign of Washington’s behavioral health crisis response system.

“In King County and across the state, the demand for behavioral health care exceeds availability of these vital services,” King County Executive Dow Constantine said. “Building and launching statewide behavioral health apprenticeship pathways is an innovative, collaborative approach to building a qualified, diverse workforce equal to the growing need. Apprenticeships will increase accessibility to services, enhance retention, stabilize the behavioral health workforce, and bring necessary diversity to the delivery of behavioral health services.”

Beyond the financial commitments to the UW and students at colleges and universities around Washington, Ballmer Group is investing in other ways to build behavioral health capacity in across the state.

  • The Washington Council for Behavioral Health will receive $1.1 million over four years from Ballmer Group to fund a pilot project to test new ways of providing clinical supervision in behavioral health centers that serve low-income communities.
  • Another $400,000 over two years will go to the Washington State Health Care Authority to drive the uptake of behavioral health peers in the Medicaid and commercial systems.
  • And $500,000 over three years will be directed to the Washington State Opportunity Scholarship to match the state’s investment in a Graduate Scholarship in Advanced Health Care, initially targeting nurse practitioners.

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