Help for the Helpers: William James College Creates Behavioral Health Career Pathways

Last year, Gisemi Rolle was making great progress toward a bachelor’s degree at William James College. But her demanding job at a human services agency, her then 10-year-old twins, and paying college tuition seemed to create an insurmountable barrier, and Rolle had to suspend her education.


But today Rolle, who lives in Gardner, Massachusetts, is back at William James College. The lion’s share of the credit goes to Rolle’s determination, but she says the college’s Child and Adolescent Mental Health Initiative (CAMHI) Scholarship is a major boost.


The scholarship is just one component of CAMHI, a sweeping program funded by a grant from Boston Children’s Collaboration for Community Health that helps defray the cost of tuition while students earn their bachelor’s degree in psychology and human services at William James.


Addressing a mismatch

Racial and ethnic minorities represent 30% of the U.S. population, but more than 80% of mental health professionals identify as non-Hispanic White. The relative dearth of diversity among providers contributes to disparities in access to and use of mental health services. “Many providers do not have the knowledge, skills, and appropriate training to help clients in a culturally sensitive way,” says Gemima St. Louis, co-director of CAMHI, co-director of William James’ Center for Multicultural and Global Mental Health, and associate professor of Clinical Psychology. As a result, she adds, “individuals and families who are in need of mental health services end up leaving treatment prematurely.”


Bottom line: A more diverse and skilled behavioral health workforce is needed to ensure that culturally competent care is available for all people. 


The goal of CAMHI is to address this unmet need by diversifying the child and adolescent behavioral health workforce through several channels:


  • Over the next three years, CAMHI will provide educational programs for 900 high school students from the Boston Public Schools to reduce the stigma around mental illness, promote mental health literacy, and increase access to college behavioral health career exploration. Marc Abelard, co-director of CAMHI and director of the bachelor’s completion program, will play a key role here—an educator for 15 years, he has a strong relationship with the Boston Public Schools. “There’s a massive need to reduce this stigma among youth,” Abelard says. “They’re the most vulnerable population, but they’re impacted by this stigma on a day-to-day basis. They may not spot signs that friends or family need help, and the stigma prevents them from seeking help themselves.”


  • Like Rolle, others who are interested in completing their BS in Psychology and Human Services will benefit from scholarships. Qualified students are those from historically marginalized income backgrounds, first-generation college students, or underrepresented minorities in the behavioral health field. 


  • CAMHI will facilitate mental health literacy and career awareness workshops through week-long summer institutes designed to reduce stigma, increase knowledge of, and improve attitudes about mental illness. 


  • The program will collaborate with educational and employer partners to recruit, train and retain a multicultural health workforce. Through this partnership, CAMHI seeks to create academic pathways, link graduates to career opportunities in greater Boston, and disseminate materials about the mental health needs of children, adolescents and families.


Gauging success

CAMHI is an ambitious program indeed, and Abelard and St. Louis have put a great deal of thought into what success will look like. “We want to increase the number of people coming into the field,” Abelard says. “We also need to get employers to add more value to the behavioral health field by increasing wages, because there’s a lot at stake to do the job and do it well.”


Adds St. Louis, “First and foremost, we need to be able to have more conversations about mental health in the community. It’s a taboo topic. We cannot effect positive changes in the community until we begin to have an open dialog.”


To judge by Rolle’s return to the classroom, William James College and CAMHI will surely prevail. “Marc was relentless,” Rolle says, “knowing I was in a tough spot financially. Even in my adversity, they stuck by me. They really want to see people succeed.”

William James