Fact: we need more mental health professionals in Texas. As of October 2015, 205 out of the 254 Texas counties fall under the designation of a Health Professional Shortage Area (HPSA). That leaves over 3 million Texans in a county without a single psychiatrist.

While many legislators and key stakeholders engaged in conversations around the mental health workforce shortage at the Capitol this past spring, one bill was signed into law that has the potential to make long-lasting impact.

Senate Bill 239 by Senator Charles Schwertner and Representative John Zerwas created a loan repayment program for mental health professionals serving in high-need, traditionally underserved or rural areas. This new program has the opportunity to create lasting change in Texas by encouraging mental health professionals to serve in areas of the state where the workforce shortage is in dire crisis, particularly along the border and in the state’s many rural counties. Mental health professionals eligible for loan repayment include psychiatrists, psychologists, advanced practice nurses in psychiatric or mental health nursing, licensed professional counselors, and licensed clinical social workers who work with individuals who are recipients of Medicaid or CHIP.

Loan repayment is a valuable asset in recruitment and retention of the state mental health workforce.  In order for legislators to see the anticipated benefits of the loan repayment program, we must ensure that:

  1. The program is used to its fullest potential.

The state budget allocated $2 million for the SB 239 Loan Repayment program. There is a likely chance that if the funds aren’t used, that they could go away. Mental health professionals should be urged to take advantage of the opportunity for loan repayment. If the legislature reconvenes in 2017 and the full $2 million was not utilized, the legislature may question its necessity or purpose in the state budget.

  1. Mental health professionals know about the new program and apply.

Eligible mental health professionals need to become aware of the program, how to apply, and complete the application process. Mental health professionals are known for being chronically overworked and underpaid. We must ensure that mental health professionals across the state learn about the loan forgiveness program and take time to apply. This requires diligence and time in a state our size. Community centers, local mental health authorities, correctional and juvenile facilities, as well as other non-traditional settings where mental healthcare is provided, should be notified of the program and asked to share the information with their staff.

  1. There is high evidence of demand from mental health professionals working in underserved or rural areas.

In order to show legislators the critical need for funding the loan repayment program, mental health professionals need to apply in abundance. A waitlist would indicate that there are many individuals who are working in underserved areas and need this loan repayment assistance to survive. No one in the mental health field wants this funding to disappear, so we must ensure that the loan repayment program is used to its fullest potential, leaving little room for any opposition. The future success of this program hinges on its ability to show the continued need of funding.

The state cannot afford to lose any more mental health professionals who are working in underserved, high-need and rural areas. Let this loan repayment program build the needed momentum to help address the mental health workforce shortage crisis in our state.

The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board (THECB) is now accepting applications for the program here. Applications are due on May 6, 2016.