First graduates of UCF counseling program take on Florida’s shortage of mental health professionals

ORLANDO, Fla. — The first graduates of a unique grant program at the University of Central Florida are preparing to move into the workforce as behavioral health professionals.

Their focus will be on opioid and substance abuse disorders.

The lack of mental health and substance abuse professionals was a deep need across Central Florida, even before the coronavirus pandemic.

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According to the U.S. The Department of Health and Human Services, Orange, Seminole, Brevard, and Osceola Counties are designated as Mental Health Professional Shortage areas.

Centers for Disease Control data also places Florida among 25 states with drug overdose deaths increasing by more than 20% over a 12-month period.

A new grant program at the University of Central Florida aims to reverse those trends.

Dr. Bryce Hagedorn is the director of the “Opioid Workforce Expansion” program at UCF’s College of Community Innovation and Education.

He says Florida is one of the lowest funded states in the country for mental health services, which can lead to “dismal” starting pay for workers.

“So how do we incentivize them to say? That’s really what this grant does,” Dr. Hagedorn says.

The program offers graduate students paid internships to learn how to collaborate on the frontlines of an epidemic.

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“From medicine and nursing and pharmacy and physical therapy and social work and counseling, so that they can have that wrap-around service approach,” Dr. Hagedorn says.

Pam Duff is one of those students. She grew up watching family members struggle with addiction, making it an issue that was always close to her heart.

“It’s important to go where you’re needed, or where your skillset kind of skews you towards, and I’m not easily shaken,” Duff says.

She says it was natural for her to become part of the solution to this particular problem, so with a new Masters Degree in Clinical Mental Health Counseling in hand, she’s heading into the workforce as an addictions counselor.

Duff and seven other graduate students spent two semesters learning how to treat opioid and substance abuse addictions.

“More than anything, I just want to be an advocate for my clients,” Duff says.

As part of her internship at Aspire Health, Duff worked in group and individual counseling, drug court, and the corrections system.

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“It’s meant to make you very familiar with how to treat this,” Duff says. “You just get to see every step of the process.”

Currently, the program serves teens and young adults, but they hope to expand and extend its work to families and veterans.

UCF also has a corresponding grant program for mental health counselors. In a separate program coming this fall, undergrads can serve as paid recovery support specialists. 88 students are set to participate over four years.