Behavioral Health Support Specialist (BHSS) Project

Department news | February 28, 2022

With generous support from Ballmer Group, we continue to build academic and structural support for a new role to help expand the behavioral health workforce in Washington. The Behavioral Health Support Specialist (BHSS) role is designed to help improve access to behavioral health interventions and address the severe workforce shortage highlighted by a 30-50% vacancy rates in behavioral health organizations across the state. The initiative is directed by Bill O’Connell, EdD, managed by Juliann Salisbury, MSW, and is part of our new Behavioral Health Workforce Expansion and Lifelong Learning (BWELL) program led by Anna Ratzliff, MD, PhD.

A BHSS is a bachelor level provider of evidenced-based interventions such as motivational interviewing, behavioral activation and low-intensity cognitive behavioral strategies for individuals with mild to moderate mental health or addiction problems under the supervision of a qualified healthcare professional. A unique aspect to the work of a BHSS will be measurement-based treatment to help the BHSS and their supervisor assess the impact of treatment and guide treatment planning. The BHSS role is part of a stepped care approach whereby relatively low intensity interventions are attempted first followed by more complex interventions from a masters or doctoral level provider when needed. A similar version of the BHSS role was enacted over a decade ago with tremendous success in the United Kingdom through the IATP (Improving Access to Psychological Therapies) program.

The Behavioral Health Support Specialist project is one of three innovative projects funded by Ballmer Group to not only expand the behavioral health workforce, but also to improve the quality of preparation for persons interested in careers in behavioral health care. BHSS preparation may be integrated into an existing bachelor’s degree program such as psychology, social work or human services, or it may be offered as a post baccalaureate program. In either instance, a qualified practicum experience with opportunities to utilize skills in evidence-based behavioral activation and cognitive behavioral strategies will crystallize learning for the student.

BHSS graduates will be ready to work in integrated primary care settings as well as other non-traditional settings for behavioral health and will be positioned to deliver the right care at the right dose, helping to prevent problems from worsening due to lack of access. For example, a patient worried about an upcoming surgery could be referred by their primary care provider to the BHSS who establishes rapport with the patient, listens to the patient’s health goals and employs behavioral activation to immediately help the patient consider culturally relevant and realistic ways to start making progress with their goals. If the patient was assessed as having a higher mental health burden, the stepped care model would then recommend a referral to an independently licensed behavioral health provider within the healthcare referral system.