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On the Front Lines of Mental Health

Among the greatest needs in our community and beyond is better access to mental health services. Qualified staff to help address this need are constantly in high demand, so Southeast Technical College is looking to address this labor shortage with their new Behavioral and Mental Health Technician program.

“We all are affected by or know someone who is affected by behavioral and mental health, and we realized that we need to do more,” said Stephen Williamson, Director of the Southeast Technical College Foundation. Earlier this year, the program began with its first cohort of students on their way to earning their Associate of Applied Science degree.

When STC’s Academic Dean, Dr. Ben Valdez, identified that there might be a role for the school to play in bolstering the mental health industry, community support quickly coalesced around the idea and the Community Foundation provided a grant to help get this program off the ground. “We see the effects of poor mental health every day,” said Patrick Gale, Vice President of Community Investment at the Foundation. “The reality is, these issues are treatable in most instances, provided there are enough trained professionals available to help.”

Vice President of Avera Behavioral Health Services, Thomas Otten, was key in creating the program. “The vision was, could we create a program that would bring people the skillsets required to enter this workforce in a timely fashion,” he said, noting that Avera is currently working to expand its behavioral and mental health capacity to meet the greater demand in recent years.

“The reality is, these issues are treatable in most instances, provided there are enough trained professionals available to help.“

Patrick Gale, Sioux Falls Area Community Foundation

Pabi Basnet, a student in the program’s first cohort, grew up in Nepal where she says that, culturally, mental illness is treated as an incurable disease. “Growing up, I was programmed to think this was normal,” she said. Since moving to the United States when she was 11 years old, Basnet has been on a journey to discover the truth about mental illness. This ignited a passion within her to teach others that their mental health struggles are not incurable, and their lives are not hopeless. “The more educated we are in mental health, the more positive change we can see in the community,” she said.

Another student in the program, Palesa Moshoeshoe, has already started her career in behavioral and mental health at Lifescape. Since the program is engineered to be friendly to students who have a non-traditional education path, it’s a compelling option for working students like Moshoeshoe and Basnet. “It gives people who didn’t have an opportunity to initially attend college an avenue in which to further their education,” Moshoeshoe said. “It gives you the gift of time.”

Pabi Basnet, Student, Southeast Technical College

Helping make this program even more accessible for students like Moshoeshoe and Basnet, the Seed for Success Foundation stepped up to create a scholarship program specifically for STC’s Behavioral and Mental Health Technician degree. “Support for behavioral health is one of the primary focuses of our foundation,” said Marianne Von Seggern, the Board Chair for the Seed for Success Foundation. “We are thrilled to partner with Southeast Technical College and to witness the community’s combined efforts in bringing this program to fruition, ensuring that the path to a career in behavioral health remains accessible to a wide range of students.”

Students who graduate from this program are equipped to be on the front line of serving individuals with mental health needs. Behavioral Health Technicians are a support role, ensuring that the psychologists and psychiatrists they work with are able to serve their patients at maximum capacity. “They are really helping to implement the treatment plan,” said Program Director Tracy Bird.

In keeping with STC’s workforce-focused approach, Bird says that the program “makes sure materials and techniques we cover in class reflect what is used in the industry.” Students have a wealth of hands-on experiences available to them, including at least two clinical opportunities where they can apply their studies in real-world scenarios.

That hands-on approach prepares students to start their careers right away at places such as Avera Behavioral Health, and it also provides opportunities to further their education. Basnet and Moshoeshoe both plan to continue their studies and pursue more advanced degrees, and Bird is working with the other major higher education institutions in South Dakota to make sure that possibility is open to them.

“It’s been a great start to the program, and we are excited to see where it will go,” Otten said, adding that a career in behavioral and mental health can be immensely rewarding. “Every single day we see somebody where we have the ability to change their life.”

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