Ballmer Group’s transformative investment in behavioral health

The Ballmer Group’s $38 million commitment to address the state’s shortage of mental health professionals is exceptional in scale and strategy.

The gift is intended not only to train hundreds of much-needed social workers, counselors, and other behavioral health professionals, but to weave a powerful safety net from the fragments of Washington’s chronically underfunded and fragmented behavioral health systems. It will link and align existing resources and drive meaningful change over the next five years.

The charitable organization, founded by former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer and his wife, Connie, has carefully crafted the gift package in consultation with experts connected to the front line efforts to serve those who are struggling. It’s a game changer, by design.

The bulk of the money will be invested in recruitment in Community behavioral health programs, which serve many of the state’s most vulnerable residents. More than 400 graduate students in social work and mental health counseling will have access to financial support at more than a dozen colleges and universities in Washington. In return, these students will commit to working in community agencies for three years.

The University of Washington School of Social Work will coordinate the program. Schools and service providers will collaborate to develop effective educational curricula, clinical education, internships and mentorship for these diverse groups of motivated students who may not be able to afford graduate studies.

A $3 million grant will fund a new Behavioral Health Support Professional program being developed by the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences. The department’s head, Jürgen Unnutzer, said it builds on a similar program that has trained thousands of undergraduate students in effective advice and treatments for Britain’s National Health Service.

“It’s not pie in the sky,” he said. “We already know it works.”

Grants to the UW Behavioral Health Institute at Harborview Medical Center will launch statewide behavioral health professional training programs and a process for developing recommendations for reforming the state’s behavioral and health crisis response system. Smaller grants to the Washington Board of Behavioral Health, the Washington State Health Care Authority, and the Washington State Scholarship will result in other target changes.

Together, these grants add to an elegant and ambitious plan to transform a fragmented system. They are building on the legislature’s recent capital investments, including a $200.5 million behavioral health education facility and psychiatric residency program, while continuing to identify system needs.

For too long, lack of government investment in behavioral health has been a source of shame and unnecessary pain in Washington communities. These investments could open a bright and welcome new chapter of support.

Leave a Comment