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New College Loan Forgiveness Program Seeks to Address Shortage of Mental Health Practitioners in Rural W.Va.

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West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission

The West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission is accepting applications for a new student loan forgiveness program for students who are entering mental health professions.

The Mental Health Loan Repayment Program pays $10,000 worth of a clinician's college loans in exchange for one year of in-state service.

The goal is to keep mental health practitioners in underserved communities around West Virginia where new shortages are occurring.

Director of Behavior Health Programs Carolyn Canini says the program also helps elevate the voices of mental health professionals.

“We’re very proud of the work they’re doing,” said Canini. “We know that showcasing them in this way by providing this award helps to elevate the profession and also helps to give a good example for students who are just now starting their education.”

The lack of behavioral health practitioners in rural and underserved areas is a reason Canini says the program is important, especially during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I think the truth of the matter is the entire state is experiencing behavioral health shortages and it’s extremely difficult to recruit and retain people in the more rural communities,” Canini said.

“We definitely had plans for this program before COVID and we definitely had a demonstrated need for West Virginia for more programs to help retain professionals within the state. But when COVID started and we started seeing an elevation in those cases it just underscored the need for this type of program.”

The state awarded its first group of practitioners last spring. Durand Warren, the director of behavioral medicine at Williamson Health and Wellness Center, was in the first group. He said the program is helpful financially, but it also helps him and those he works with succeed emotionally.

“You’re not going to be filthy rich being a substance use counselor or a mental health counselor. You do it because you get rich in reward from seeing someone getting their life back,” Warren said.

The program will accept applications from October to January. Those receiving the award will be announced in February. More information can be found at collegeforwv.com.

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