LAKEWOOD, Calif. — A few times per week, you can find health care professional Jennifer Rodriguez at a coffee shop in Lakewood. But she’s not there just for the caffeine fix.

"I’m constantly studying," she said. "If I’m not working my regular job, I am studying, I am doing homework."

What You Need To Know

  • Research from the Healthforce Center at UCSF projected California would be short 28% psychologists, therapists and social workers than needed by 2028

  • During the COVID-19 pandemic, the demand has grown even more according to Kaiser Permanente’s Mental Health Scholars Academy director

  • Health care professionals such as Jennifer Rodriguez say there is also a need for mental health services in Spanish-speaking communities

  • The academy will train about 175 students this fall

It's not Rodriguez's first time hitting the books. She is pursuing her second Master’s degree — this time in mental health to become a licensed marriage and family therapist — while working full-time.

For the past 15 years, Rodriguez has worked for Kaiser Permanente in a variety of roles, currently as an equity inclusion and diversity project manager, but it was making mental health appointments for patients that left a huge impression.

“I think there was a desperate need for more mental health employees, especially Spanish-speaking mental health, and I do speak Spanish” she said.

Rodriguez is also a Marine Corps veteran and has witnessed other friends and family who served in the military, including her father, struggle with mental health issues. So she was thrilled when she got a chance to enroll in Kaiser Permanente’s Mental Health Scholars Academy, putting her on a path to change careers and become a therapist.

"I’ve probably had this dream since I was about 14 years old," she said. “A lot of it has just been really, really wanting to help people."

Rodriguez's training comes at a time when there's a shortage of mental health professionals. Dan Gizzo, director of the academy, says that before the COVID-19 pandemic, research from the Healthforce Center at the University of California, San Francisco projected that California would be short by 28% of the psychologists, therapists and social workers needed by 2028.

Gizzo explained that during the pandemic, the demand grew.

“Obviously with the pandemic, we’re seeing the increased stress that everyone has gone through,” he said. “We’re starting to see, at this point in time in the pandemic, an increase in demand for mental health services.”

Recent data from the U.S. Census Bureau Household Pulse Survey shows that almost 40% of adults in the U.S. reported having depression or anxiety during the pandemic. Plus, a study published in JAMA Network Open showed that over 27% of adults reported depression symptoms, compared to over 8% before the pandemic.

Gizzo says Kaiser's program will train at least 400 people over three years, but it’s not the only solution. He hopes to see diverse therapists reach into communities where there may be a stigma surrounding mental health.

“I do think that it takes programs like this that offer combinations of tuition support with mentoring, networking, that kind of offer that package,” Gizzo said. “That really helps to close some of those gaps.”

Patients like Lilian Leslie are grateful to see more counselors being trained. Even before the pandemic, she struggled with mental health issues, which intensified over the past year. Leslie was grateful she could still book sessions using telehealth; otherwise, she may not have gone at all.

"When I’m feeling stressed, one thing that I learned was, 'OK, I’m feeling a little overwhelmed, and I’ll get through this. OK, it’s normal. It’s OK,'" she said.

For Rodriguez, she hopes to help those in Spanish-speaking communities, where there is still a stigma surrounding mental health.

“It’s very hard for people to get the services that they need because of the stigma,” she said.