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University Tackles National Shortage of Mental Health Care Professionals

July 22, 2021

Innovative Tech Collaboratory Aims to Increase Access to Mental Health Treatment

During commencement ceremonies on June 26, Palo Alto University (PAU) honored 273 graduates from its psychology and counseling programs prepared to address current mental health challenges through clinical practice and research. This number, however, doesn’t begin to address the nationwide shortage of mental health professionals, a shortage heightened by the coronavirus pandemic according to the National Council for Behavioral Health.

Recognizing that technology has become an inherent part of modern psychological treatments, PAU is addressing this shortage through its “Mental Health Tech Collaboratory” that develops and evaluates mental health technologies and standards, and trains practitioners in digital mental health best practices -- all with the goal to reduce barriers and expand the reach of mental health support worldwide.

‘The Collaboratory’ harnesses the strengths of a team of nationally renowned psychologists, who are pioneers in digital and tele-mental technologies and members of PAU’s research faculty. This brain trust includes:

  • C. Barr Taylor, M.D., whose groundbreaking research has led to numerous cost-effective, technology-based approaches to the prevention and treatment of mental health disorders and medical risk factors such as eating disorders;

  • Josef Ruzek, PhD, a psychologist whose trailblazing work helped develop the first-ever mental health application,  PTSD Coach, for the U.S. Veterans Administration in 2011.  

  • Distinguished Professor Ricardo Muñoz, PhD, a clinical psychologist whose research since the late 1990’s has revealed that online interventions using cognitive behavioral methods were effective in helping individuals quit smoking; and, 

  • Donna Sheperis, a PhD Counselor Educator, whose work with tele-mental health provision led to the development of tele-mental health standards of practice.

The broad delivery of high-quality mental health care has never been more critical,” said PAU President Maureen O’Connor. “The pandemic has underscored the need for effective and safe digital mental health interventions. Our world-class team of investigators are developing and evaluating groundbreaking technologies and leading the development of professional training and best practices in tele-mental health care delivery,” she said.

The Mental Health Tech Collaboratory comprises:

The PAU E-Clinic - a fully online clinic offering mental health services to students, adults, and older adults in California, established by Drs. Barr Taylor, Joe Ruzek, and  Donna Sheperis, who currently oversees the Clinic.

Center For M2Health - founded and led by Dr. C. Barr Taylor, the Center’s mission is to develop, evaluate, and disseminate new ways to use technology and to help provide affordable, accessible, evidence-based mental health care worldwide.

i4Health -The Institute for International Interventions for Health - founded and led by Dr. Ricardo Muñoz. Its mission is to develop, evaluate, and disseminate digital health interventions worldwide at no charge for all who want to use them.  

“The number of people who have access to the Internet and cell phones is ever increasing. By developing, evaluating and using these increasingly prevalent technologies to administer interventions and providing them in many languages, the potential for reaching underserved populations globally is now an attainable mental health goal,” says Dr. Ricardo Muñoz. 

“Clearly, developing and evaluating digital mental health technologies is a growing sector of employment for psychologists,” says Dr. Josef Ruzek, who co-directs the PAU Early Trauma Intervention Center and serves on the advisory board of One Mind PsyberGuide, a non-profit that aims to help people use technology to live a mentally healthier life. “The Tech Collaboratory engages faculty and students in international collaborations.” 

This year, more than 50 PAU mental health counseling and psychology doctoral students were trained in best practices for using traditional online face-to-face therapy, digital-based interventions such as mobile apps, and guided self-help therapy - the use of online tools with the support of a therapist.

As part of this work, PAU is committed to improving the effectiveness of mental health professionals and services by providing education in best practices in tele-mental health and digital technology through its Continuing and Professional Studies Division. In August 2021, the program will launch a new Certificate in Digital Technology available to anyone seeking such training.

“The Tech Collaborative builds on PAU’s longstanding tradition of integrating digital technology into its curriculum,” said Dr. Taylor. “Many PAU alumni now play important roles with digital mental health companies and organizations that incorporate technology into clinical care.” Among them are Headspace, Woebot, Modern Health, the Veteran’s Administration and more.

Palo Alto University (PAU), a private, non-profit university located in the heart of Northern California’s Silicon Valley, is dedicated to addressing pressing and emerging issues in the fields of psychology and counseling that meet the needs of today’s diverse society. PAU offers undergraduate and graduate programs that are led by faculty who make significant contributions to in their field. Online, hybrid and residential program options are available . PAU was founded in 1975 as the Pacific Graduate School of Psychology and re-incorporated as Palo Alto University in August 2009. PAU is accredited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC).  PAU’s doctoral programs are accredited by the American Psychological Association (APA) and its master’s in counseling programs by the Council for Accreditation of Counseling & Related Educational Programs (CACREP).