UnitedHealth Group and California universities join forces to address shortage of mental health providers

When Meaghan Jung was 13 years old, her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer and tragically died shortly thereafter. Meaghan was left with no one to talk to and nowhere to unburden herself. She didn’t have access to a mental health professional who could help her through this devastating time. Instead, she spent her early teen years grieving alone. 

Meaghan still carries the memories of that trauma. Today, she is a student at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) School of Nursing, where she is studying to be a psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner. Her dream is to become the care provider that she never had as a teen.

“Becoming a psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner is hopefully my way to be able to help people in similar circumstances,” Meaghan said.

UnitedHealth Group is doing its part to ensure more students, like Meaghan, have the opportunity to give back. The company awarded two grants, totaling $8 million, to California universities that will help expand the mental health workforce throughout the state. The two partnerships — one with UCSF, the other with the University of California San Diego, each worth $4 million — will widen the pipeline of child and adolescent psychiatry clinicians. This will help allow new clinical learning opportunities, new curricula and more student mentoring supports for child and adolescent psychiatry fellows and mental health nurse practitioners.

“One of our nation’s most pressing health care needs is the mental health and well-being of children and adolescents,” says Steve Cain, CEO of UnitedHealthcare of Northern California, part of UnitedHealth Group. “UnitedHealth Group is honored to help expand and diversify the health care workforce.”

The need in California — and across the United States — is dire. As many as 1 in 6 children living in the U.S. experience some sort of mental disorder. Suicide rates among adolescents aged 10-24 saw a 56% increase over 10 years. And yet, according to the California Future Health Workforce Commission, there are currently only 13 child and adolescent psychiatrists per 100,000 children in the state. By 2028, UCSF’s Philip R. Lee Institute for Health Policy Studies projects that California will have only about half the psychiatrists it will need, along with just 28 percent of the needed psychologists, social workers and counselors. And in some communities and regions, the shortages will be even worse.

“The shortage of behavioral health professionals was already a crisis before the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Lt. Gov. of California Eleni Kounalakis and the mother of two teenage sons. “Now the need is even more dire. When children don’t receive care for a treatable mental health condition, they can’t reach their full potential. As a parent, I find this heartbreaking for any family. Which is why it’s so important to grow the supply of mental health professionals so children and their families can have healthier and more vibrant lives.”

Diversity is an important element of the new initiatives. In addition to broadening the learning opportunities and mentoring supports for new providers, the grants will also be used to provide financial support for students and residents from underrepresented populations who are interested in pursuing child and adolescent mental health careers.

“It’s key that we have a diverse graduating class of child psychiatrists and psychiatric nurse practitioners,” said Dan Lowenstein, executive vice chancellor and provost at UCSF, “because it’s well established that when a provider shares the same race, language or cultural background as their patient, it improves their care.”

New programs enabled by the grants are already up and running at both schools. At UC San Diego, in the School of Medicine, a new summer immersion program for first- and second-year medical students recently introduced them to the field of child and adolescent psychiatry.

“We want to provide the exposure as well as the support that is necessary to succeed in medicine,” said Desiree Shapiro, associate clinical professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at UC San Diego School of Medicine. “The medical journey is arduous and creating an understanding and encouraging network has the power to inspire future leaders to use their voices to positively impact their communities and mental health systems of care.”

Meanwhile, at UCSF, psychiatric mental health nurse practitioners have already received their scholarships and are training with youth; fellows are completing rotations in psychiatry; and faculty members have been hired and recruited as mentors.

One of the beneficiaries of the program is Meaghan, who is working to ensure that young people who are going through similar trauma and mental health issues to those she suffered when she was 13 will have a qualified professional to care for their needs.

“The support from UnitedHealth has been lifechanging for me,” Meaghan said. “It’s an incredible gift.”

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