COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) — People are leaving the mental healthcare field burned out, and they aren’t being replaced fast enough to handle the booming need for their services.

“You have people doing really, really hard jobs and, sometimes, sad jobs,” said Maggie Hallett, senior director of workplace health and education at Mental Health America of Ohio. Hallett works mostly with community mental health organizations.

“You’re helping people who are arguably in some of the lowest points of their life, and they get paid so little. We hear that people are leaving in droves because they can make, you know, $2 to $4 more an hour in retail, or you know, food service, or whatever it may be.

“If there could be a way to pay these people what they deserve, if they could make a livable wage, if they didn’t have to work more than one job, and they could live and meet their needs with one job, then everybody would be doing so much better,” Hallett added.

Hallett hears the experiences of social workers, counselors, and case managers — people who help others get through their lives, including those who work in residential settings like group homes or detox. She’s heard of people taking clients to the food pantry and then returning to the pantry to shop for themselves.

A report from the Ohio Council of Behavioral Health and Family Services Providers Breaking Point shows the stark gap between the need for mental health treatment and workers to provide those services.

There are two primary problems facing community agencies that provide mental health care services, according to Breaking Point: Staff burnout, and difficulty recruiting staff. Almost all of the mental health care providers who responded to the council’s survey said they had difficulty recruiting staff (98 percent). Most said they had difficulty retaining staff (88 percent), and over three-quarters (77 percent) said they had high staff turnover.

Low wages for a difficult and demanding job, coupled with the high cost of higher education, mean qualified workers leave the field and new workers choose other professions, the report found.

“We also know that because there are fewer workers, they are trying to do more,” said Teresa Lampl, CEO of the Ohio Council of Behavioral Health and Family Services Providers, which produced the report. “Even more than they would normally do, which is going above and beyond.”

“So the challenge is, they just feel this incredible stress because they can’t meet the needs that are sitting there in front of them,” Lampl added.

This impacts people who need help with longer wait times. Sara Harrison-Mills, chief clinical officer for Syntero, which offers counseling support to schools among other services, said wait times to get in to see a counselor have lengthened.

“Right now it’s very difficult to get an appointment,” Harrison-Mills said. “We typically are able to get people into a first appointment within, I would say, one to two months. And at this point, I think it’s six-plus months.”

Lampl said the Ohio Council of Behavioral Health and Family Services Providers hopes to provide more avenues into the profession through scholarships, loan forgiveness programs, and building career ladders so people can get credentials at different levels of education.