Addressing the Rural Shortage of Mental Health Providers Through a Virtual Mentorship Network

Teaching & Engagement, 2014


The state of Nebraska is facing a critical shortage of mental health providers. In 2011, 88 of Nebraska’s 93 counties were federally-designated behavioral health professional shortage areas. Immediate intervention is required to address the shortage of mental health professionals in rural areas. Therefore, the objective of this project was to engage and connect students and members of their communities with mentor relationships. A virtual mentorship community of rural students and professionals throughout Nebraska was developed. The program recruited dynamic behavioral health professionals from rural underserved areas throughout the state to partner with interested students at the high school or undergraduate level. Students partnered with mentors from two different mental health professions; psychiatry and psychology.

The long term outcomes of this project include the placement of behavioral health professionals in rural communities, and connecting them to a culture of mentorship. In short, families and rural primary care providers would be able to connect to a local psychiatrist, psychologist, psychiatric nurse, or therapist so that they would not need to leave the community for care.


Leaders in Nebraska are seeking solutions to critical shortages in the behavioral health workforce. The shortage is particularly acute in rural areas where there is a limited supply of practicing mental health providers to serve as role models for youth as they explore career paths. The development of a virtual mentoring network (VMN) may bridge geographic gaps and connect interested high school and college students with behavioral health practitioners to increase the number of applicants to graduate programs from underserved areas. The VMN program was rated to be helpful in both years of the project, but significantly more helpful in year two when college students were provided with tailored and career-specific information. These results suggest that separating high school and college mentoring cohorts due to different career counseling needs and allowing students to specify which licensed behavioral health professional they engage can increase the student satisfaction with an online mentoring program.  This pilot can serve as a model for other states that have significant workforce shortages in rural and urban underserved areas, as well as a model for additional behavioral health careers in which shortages are observed.

This mentorship program in the college-aged, small-group format will continue in the future. Efforts will be made to establish a sustainable program through which professionals in the behavioral health fields are able to provide career-specific guidance to mentees interested in the behavioral health career pathways. Dynamic professionals or advanced students will be recruited to serve as mentors to college students. Additionally, future work will include applying the successful VMN approach to additional behavioral health careers, such as social work, marriage and family counseling, and substance abuse counseling.

The videos created as a part of VMN are a permanent product and will be used to distribute basic career information to high school students through a variety of outlets, described above. Additionally, further outlets for the videos created for high school students will be sought, and distribution will continue as additional outlets are identified.

Project Team


  • University of Nebraska at Kearney
  • Munroe Meyer Institute at UNMC
  • University of Nebraska at Omaha
  • University of Nebraska–Lincoln
  • Psychiatry Residency Program, Creighton University
  • Wayne State College
  • Doane University
  • Grand Island High School
  • Kearney Senior High School
  • Lexington High School




Media Coverage


Contact: Howard Liu,