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CONCORD, NH — The pandemic stoked two major changes in the mental health profession — it shifted counseling online and it created an influx of patients.
A bill in the New Hampshire Statehouse aims to address both changes, making virtual counseling even more accessible by giving Granite Staters access to licensed counselors across the country.
The bill, SB 397, would allow New Hampshire to join a group of states that make up the Counseling Compact, which creates unified licensing guidelines that allow mental health counselors to easily practice across state lines.
Currently, patients seeking virtual therapy platforms are limited to a dwindling pool of counselors living and licensed in New Hampshire. That restriction can limit a patient’s ability to access care.
Under the new compact, Granite Staters could see counselors licensed in any of the other states in the group.
Six states have enacted legislation to join the compact and 16 more, including Maine and New Hampshire, have pending legislation. The compact will go into effect after 10 states join, which is expected to happen this year.
Lindsey Courtney, the executive director of the New Hampshire Office of Professional Licensure and Certification, said New Hampshire’s bill appears to have bipartisan support. Several other professions, like occupational therapy, have similar compacts that allow professionals to practice across state lines.
States participating in the compact are required to license and regulate counselors in their own state, holding them to high licensure standards, which are not identical to New Hampshire’s standards but are “substantively equivalent,” according to letter from the Board of Mental Health Practice submitted in support of the compact.
Gary Goodnough, a professor of counselor education at Plymouth State University said this is just the most recent example of the shift in counseling towards tele-behavioral health, which he said has pushed the profession to an “inflection point.”
“I hate to say anything good about the pandemic but it has really changed how therapy is sought out and provided,” said Goodnough, who is also the chair of the Board of Mental Health Practice.
Addressing the counseling shortage in New Hampshire is a hot topic in the Legislature, after the pandemic created an influx of people seeking mental health treatment that overwhelmed the existing infrastructure.
Seth Wizwer, the president New Hampshire Mental Health Counselors Association, told the Concord Monitor last year that demand for his services skyrocketed after the pandemic began.
“Consistently, every day, people call asking if they could start services,” Wizwer said. “This has definitely been the biggest spike I’ve seen in my career. I haven’t had this many, all at once, constantly looking.”
State representatives have also proposed legislation that would establish a committee to study potential barriers prospective counselors face when applying for a license.
Courtney said the reasons for the counselor shortage go far beyond licensing barriers. The opioid crisis and pandemic have created an influx of patients while the workforce of licensed counselors is aging.
“I certainly don’t think licensing is the primary problem, but it is part of the solution,” she said. “The state is going to have to figure out how to attract people from out of state. How do we make it attractive to come here?”
Participating in the compact may circumvent that problem altogether, by allowing counselors to virtually counsel Granite Staters from the comfort of their own home state.
The bill will be heard Tuesday in the House’s Executive Departments and Administration committee.
These articles are being shared by partners in The Granite State News Collaborative. For more information visit collaborativenh.org.