A licensed social worker with a master’s degree earns less than a manager of a fast-food restaurant, according to the 2011 Behavioral Health Salary Survey just released by the National Council for Community Behavioral Healthcare. The survey finds that the nation’s mental health and addictions treatment professionals are paid far less than their counterparts in other health care sectors. “Just as people with mental illnesses and substance-use disorders are routinely stigmatized, it appears those working in the behavioral health sector are also treated differently—even within the health care community,” says Linda Rosenberg, National Council president and CEO.
Why the stigma? A few reasons come to mind.
Some people believe that it isn’t worth spending much on caring for and counseling the mentally ill because “they’ll never be able to make much of a contribution to society.” (I recall an attorney who was defending a city that refused to follow state laws about educating and mainstreaming handicapped children explaining to me that: “These kids will never get good jobs and pay enough in taxes to return on the investment the city would be making in their education.” )
Others blame those addicted to drugs or other substances, refusing to understand that addiction is a disease, and that once hooked, will-power alone is rarely enough to break a serious addiction. Patients need counseling; medication can help. And programs for addicts can work. I personally know a musician who was addicted to heroin for five years, finally hit bottom, and went into rehab. He was lucky enough to connect with a very good counselor, and with the counselor’s help, went through the extremely painful process of “getting clean.” That was close to twenty years ago. He is now a computer specialist, married and has a delightful child.
Finally, in our society, we tend to look down on “do-gooders.” We respect people who work with money: packaging it (Wall Street professionals who create a wide array of financial products); lending it (bankers who make reckless loans and then foreclose on our mortgages); gambling with it (hedge fund operators) or just raking it in (CEOs). People who work with people (teachers, social workers, the day- care workers who care for our children) command far less respect.
Below, the results from the survey of more than 850 mental health and addictions treatment organizations:
• A direct care worker in a 24-hour residential treatment center earns a lower median salary ($23,000 a year) than an assistant manager at Burger King ($25,589).
• The annual salary range for a chief medical officer at a behavioral health organization is $101,000–$150,000, compared to the national average of $183,947–$292,395 for the same position in any other type of health care organization.
• A social worker with a master’s degree in a mental health-addictions treatment organization earns less ($45,344) than a social worker in a general health care agency ($50,470).
• A registered nurse working in a behavioral health organization earns $52,987 compared to the national average for nurses of $66,530.
“The survey underscores the need to end the second class status of employees working in mental health and addictions organizations” says Rosenberg, who cites the recent economic crisis and state budget cuts as contributing to the problem. “Until we achieve equity with the rest of the public healthcare safety net, we will continue to struggle to recruit and retain the number and caliber of professionals needed for more efficient and effective mental health and addictions services.”
The survey, conducted in partnership with the National Association of Addiction Treatment Professionals, includes salary data for executives, administrators, clinicians, direct care and support staff in public and private behavioral health care organizations from July 1 2009 to June 30 2010. Completed in November 2010, survey findings are based on salaries reported by 860 respondents from 46 states. The full report is available at www.TheNationalCouncil.org.