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Enhancing the Workforce

Supporting More Social Workers for Tennessee Public Behavioral Health Agencies

Dean Lori Messinger and Commissioner Marie Williams
Dean Lori Messinger and Commissioner Marie Williams

In 2021, Dean Lori Messinger served on the Public Behavioral Health Workforce Workgroup, co-led by Marie Williams (’93), Commissioner of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, her team, and leadership from TennCare including Director Stephen Smith. The Workgroup identified the need to educate and retain more trained mental health professionals in Tennessee.

Williams has spent her career bettering the lives of Tennesseans. Five years after graduating with her MSSW in social work from UTCSW, Williams was named a Fellow in the Housing and Urban Development community building program at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. During her time in the program, she developed the Creating Homes Initiative, which provides affordable housing for people living with mental illness. The initiative has created more than 35,000 housing opportunities for Tennesseans and has leveraged more than $1.2 billion in additional funding based on its success. In her time as commissioner, Williams has been a leader in addressing essential issues facing Tennessee including the opioid crisis, emergency psychiatric services, and criminal justice reform. Additionally, she has introduced safety net services that offer treatment for more than 32,000 Tennesseans annually who have a severe mental illness, are uninsured, and are up to 138 percent below the federal poverty line.

In 2023, exactly three decades after Williams’ UTCSW graduation, the state passed legislation that supported funding for scholars in behavioral health fields.  Among the items funded was $50 million nonrecurring for community mental health agencies to provide mental health services and bonuses to licensed medical practitioners including social workers, a $12.1 million nonrecurring for sign-on and retention bonuses for behavioral health professionals working at public behavioral health providers funded by the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, a $3 million nonrecurring for a behavioral health scholarship program to provide a stipend for Tennessee residents pursuing a degree in a behavioral health-related field, and $4 million nonrecurring for the Behavioral Health Safety Net to provide mental health services.  

“We are pleased with the progress the legislature is making toward behavioral health services,” Dean Messinger said. “While we still have work to do to guarantee all people will receive the help they need, it’s encouraging to see the Public Behavioral Health Workforce Workgroup’s efforts, and especially those of Commissioner Williams, come to some fruition. We will continue to advocate for more funding for social workers and for programs to support the needs of our communities.”

Additionally, in 2022 and 2023, the TN Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services partnered with CSW to develop the Pathways to Behavioral Health Careers project. It presents high school students across the state with information about pathways to careers in social work, counseling, psychiatry and other behavioral health professions.

Interested students can also research on their own through the project website: Pathways to Behavioral Health Careers (; YouTube channel Pathways Career Project – YouTube and Instagram page Pathways Project (@pathwayscareersproject) • Instagram photos and videos