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How to diversify Colorado’s behavioral health workforce? A new effort starts by training teens

An illustration shows a group of five women sitting on chairs in a circle wearing shirts of different colors.
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A new high school program supported by the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus and Colorado’s Behavioral Health Administration seeks to provide young people with the support they need to graduate school and help them get necessary certifications to pursue careers in behavioral health.

High schools in Denver, Aurora and the San Luis Valley are looking for students to join a new program aimed at increasing diversity in Colorado’s behavioral health care workforce.

The goal of the Hummingbird Initiative is twofold: to provide young people with the support they need to finish high school as well as help them get the certifications that can be required to begin a career in behavioral health. The University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus and Colorado’s Behavioral Health Administration are both backing the program, which rolled out at six high schools this month. The program has received $4.2 million in funding so far from state and federal sources.

Along with career mentorship, students will have access to trauma-informed care training and certified nurse assistant and emergency medical technician programs, among other options. Oftentimes, these medical certifications can help young professionals get a first job in behavioral health fields, including work in mental health and substance use prevention.

“I think historically there's always been a lot of mistrust and discrimination that's been faced by racial and ethnic minoritized individuals like Black patients, American Indian patients and Latino patients,” Dr. Lilia Cervantes, a program leader and associate professor in the department of medicine at CU Anschutz, said. “To reduce mistrust, to improve culturally responsive care, I think we need to diversify the health care workforce.”

Colorado does not collect demographic data on behavioral health professionals licensed through the state, but nationwide the majority of psychologists are white women. In a 2021 workforce survey by the American Psychological Association, a vast majority of respondents identified as white while Black and Asian people each made up 3% of respondents. Six percent of respondents were Hispanic.

“I can't emphasize how important it was for patients to be able to speak to me in Spanish,” Dr. Cervantes said. “You could just see it in their faces, how grateful they were to be able to connect with their doctor in their native language.”

A program similar to the Hummingbird Initiative is already in place at Manual High School in Denver. So far, it has shown promising results. According to a report from CU Anschutz, since the program launched in 2017 all students participating in the program graduated high school and 90% say they intend to pursue careers in the health care industry.

As KUNC's Senior Editor and Reporter, my job is to find out what’s important to northern Colorado residents and why. I seek to create a deeper sense of urgency and understanding around these issues through in-depth, character driven daily reporting and series work.
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