Behavioral Health Advocates: Supporting Mental Health in Workforce Development

Jill Monte - Content Specialist ·

Shaliyah Jones – Behavioral Health Coordinator – PA CareerLink Luzerne/Schuylkill County
Matt Morris – Behavioral Health Advocate Performance Specialist – PA CareerLink Bucks/Montgomery County

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Q&A Spotlight: BHAs Provide Crucial Services for PA Jobseekers and the Staff Supporting Them

Providing mental health support is a crucial part of serving customers, particularly in the workforce development industry, which is why more and more regions are hiring Behavioral Health Advocates (BHAs) to be part of their staff. As a matter of fact, in Pennsylvania, the State now mandates that all Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) service providers have a BHA on staff. A BHA is a Master’s-level social service professional who provides in-depth counseling to participants through career centers and One-Stops across the country, with the goal of providing support and removing personal barriers so participants can land and keep a job.

In this Q&A with Behavioral Health Advocates Matt Morris and Shay Jones, who work for EDSI, a national workforce development consulting firm, you will learn more about the essential work they are doing, more about the BHA role, and how participants are transforming their lives because of this support.

Q1: What is the role of a BHA and why is it important?

SJ: The role of a Behavioral Health Advocate is to address any stressors or barriers a participant may be experiencing by providing brief and solution-focused counseling. We listen and offer support, link them to community resources that may be helpful, provide referrals to partnering organizations, and work with them to achieve their individualized goals. Ultimately, BHAs provide emotional support and a safe space for participants in need.

BHA’s are able to “meet each individual where they are” due to the way service delivery has evolved to be a more flexible, blended role. There isn’t the expectation from the participant to have to meet with us but we bridge the gap between the long wait list for a formal counseling intake appointment to something that is more immediate, needs-based and accessible without having to make a long-term commitment. It’s a nice “pick and choose” type of service that centers around how to keep working on health and overall wellness as a priority.

Q2: Matt, you were the first BHA hired by EDSI to work with jobseekers in PA and the State took notice. Tell us more about the intended service delivery and where things stand now.

MM: I was initially hired by Montgomery and Delaware Counties in 2018 as a Behavioral Health Advocate as part of a grant to explore providing mental health support to participants in the workforce development industry.

The BHA service delivery plan was initially intended to be presented to participants as a traditional onsite pre-scheduled, hour-long counseling session where a treatment plan was developed, and a subsequent cadence of visits would follow. Once I started meeting with participants, it became apparent that the usual format was not the best fit for our participants because:

1. When people are seeking employment assistance, they are looking to get a job and keep a job, so being able to commit to or prioritize a prior engagement (i.e. 1-hour weekly counseling session) proved to be difficult or added unnecessary stress.

2. A 1-hour session developing a comprehensive treatment plan felt overwhelming for participants. Shifting to a 30-minute timeframe allowed us to focus on the “here and now” and address immediate needs. Participants found value in the initial BHA session, because people kept returning for more sessions.

In 2020, the State of Pennsylvania took notice of the positive participant outcomes. For example, participants reported reducing or eliminating barriers and securing employment. The State decided that BHAs would become a mandatory part of all TANF and EARN programs operated by EDSI. Now, it is mandated for all participants receiving services to meet with a BHA for an initial assessment. Currently there are 8 BHAs working in the EARN programs operated by EDSI in Pennsylvania and meeting the regulations that the State requires. BHAs serve participants in the programs listed below and may also be available to other programs throughout EDSI.

Q3: Can you explain the external and internal reach of EDSI’s BHAs?

SJ: Externally, we serve participants throughout our programs in Pennsylvania. Working in alignment with the State, we use our clinical background and experience to offer psychoeducation face-to-face or virtually. We counsel and teach. We offer tools and resources, including a psychoeducation newsletter that discusses different wellness topics and how it’s related to work readiness – under the umbrella of EDSI’s Wellness to Work Initiative. We also connect people to other services or specialty areas such as substance abuse meetings, support groups, etc.

Internally we work with our Talent Team to support staff - BHAs, case managers, career counselors – who serve participants. We do this in a variety of ways including sharing information in online monthly summits and discussion groups. We also serve all our EDSI team members by posting information on our intranet, publishing articles in our staff newsletter, and offering periodic webinars on topics like mental wellness, self-care, mindfulness, etc. We continually add resources to our intranet and have recently built wellness and reentry corners for staff who need specific information for themselves, their family/friends or the clients they serve.

Q4: How has data helped you increase the number of BHAs working in programs?

MM: We started tracking data in the first year and we realized that we were mostly seeing participants for one or two sessions. It made more sense in that initial meeting to focus on giving them as many resources as possible in order to help them get from their current situation to their aspirational situation. Our goal is to keep the ball rolling for them and provide the appropriate level of support they need - whether that be one session with a BHA, or several over the course of their time in the program.

SJ: In leading up this initiative we knew it was important to capture data to show the benefits of having Behavioral Health Advocates involved in our programs. Our 2022-23 annual report gives an in-depth look at who we serve and how we serve them. It shows how many meetings our team has conducted, lists the barriers that participants report, and highlights a post-meeting survey where participants gave feedback about working with the BHA.

You can view our 2022-23 Annual Report here

Q6: Do you foresee other states being able to implement the BHA component into their programs?

MM: Yes, just seeing the growth and positive data highlighting the BHAs in our PA programs the past few years is an indication of the value of the BHA services. Because we laid the groundwork in PA and have developed a successful model to emulate, we know how to assess the data in any office, in any region. We can serve as consultants and project the number of enrollments per week and can estimate the number of staff and budget needed to fund BHAs to meet state, program and participant needs. We hope our annual report will show funders across all our regions that there is a great need and big value for more BHA positions to serve participants.

Q7: What innovations are in the works for BHA programming?

SJ: We’re always looking ahead at what’s next as we continue to grow EDSI’s Wellness to Work Initiative. [SJ1] We are fortunate that our leadership and Talent Team have been receptive and said yes to many of our ideas, and our staff who have attended our workshops and summits keep asking for more. We recently collaborated with staff across the company to build a Reentry Corner for those who serve the incarcerated/formerly incarcerated population, and we’re in the process of developing trauma-responsive curriculums.

I’m also getting trained in Mental Health First Aid. It’s a national program with an existing curriculum that focuses on recognizing the patterns of thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and appearance that show there might be a mental health challenge and an action plan to apply to non-crisis and crisis scenarios. I will then train staff who request to be trained, and later will begin in-office trainings with larger groups.

Many programs submit grants and RFPs to gain new business. We often serve as subject matter experts (SMEs) when it comes to answering questions about BHAs and mental health. We are always available to answer how to include a mental health component in a program, or how to collect and share data supporting the need of BHAs/mental health support.

Q8: Can you share an example of how a program can request trauma-responsive services without hiring a BHA?

MM: In our Philadelphia program, a traumatic incident happened onsite, and we were asked to serve as consultants to discuss how to best prepare staff and clients from a mental health and safety perspective. We ended up meeting with the program manager to determine their needs and come up with a proactive plan for potential future incidents. We put together a support group for their staff and also gave them a list of resources they could review and use what works.

We also get requests from program managers who are trying to determine whether their program would benefit from having a BHA, so we’re able to talk about what their needs are and assess their participant barriers to see if they really do need a BHA or if staff may just need more training in mental health, access to resources, etc.

SJ: We want programs to know that even if they can’t afford to hire a BHA, they can still train their staff to learn to be more trauma-responsive and able to give warm hand-offs. The goal is to address the whole person – that means considering a participant’s mental and physical health – to remove barriers in order to live a healthier life and secure long-term employment.

For additional information on anything BHA-related, feel free to fill out this form and we will reach out to you.