Nebraska’s third rural BHECN site opens in Wayne, aims to grow behavioral health workforce

By: - September 5, 2023 5:47 pm

Benthack Hall at Wayne State College currently houses the Behavioral Health Education Center of Nebraska’s northeast satellite offices. A BHECN training center is under construction on the campus. This photo was shot in 2021. (Courtesy of Geoff Johnson)

OMAHA — To help grow the state’s mental and behavioral health workforce, the Behavioral Health Education Center of Nebraska has opened its third rural site — this one in northeast Nebraska.

The center at the Wayne State College campus joins a sister site at the University of Nebraska at Kearney, which launched in 2015, and another that started in 2019 at Chadron State College.

Ciera Afrank, director of the Behavioral Health Education Center of Nebraska’s northeast satellite at Wayne State College. (Courtesy of University of Nebraska Medical Center)

The latest addition means the state-funded BHECN is halfway to meeting one of its goals: to develop six behavioral health regional sites.

Recognizing a mental health professional shortage even back in 2009, the Nebraska Legislature created the BHECN to recruit, retain and increase the competency of the state’s behavioral health workforce.

Its overall mission is to provide accessible education and training to meet the needs of employers, behavioral health professionals and Nebraska residents.

Last year, the Legislature allocated $25.5 million to the BHECN to administer and to award grants to organizations across the state that address the worker shortage. The center is based at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha.

Dr. Marley Doyle, who heads the BHECN, said that establishing the rural sites in places like northeast, central Nebraska and the Panhandle is an attempt to tailor training, recruitment and retention to the needs of particular regions.

Dr. Marley Doyle, director of the Behavioral Health Education Center of Nebraska (Courtesy of University of Nebraska Medical Center)

“Nebraska is a geographically and demographically diverse state, and that means providers, students and trainees face different challenges” based on the part of the state in which they work, she said.

Ciera Afrank, who is directing the northeast site, said that area’s region-specific challenges include a “tri-state” identity that extends into Iowa and South Dakota. She said providers encounter complex licensure and telehealth regulations with clients seeking services across state lines.

At the same time, she said, the proximity to the other states presents opportunities to recruit and train the behavioral health workforce for the benefit of interstate rural populations.

Afrank, who also is Wayne State’s director of counseling services, said a key focus of the northeast site will be mentorship of students. It also will provide training and opportunities for seasoned providers and professionals to expand skills and networks, she said.

“It’s all about workforce development,” she said, recruiting and preparing newcomers to the field as well as retaining existing workers.

An open house is planned Nov. 3 to celebrate an under-construction training center that will host future training and conferences, and for people to learn more about the program, Afrank said.


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Cindy Gonzalez
Cindy Gonzalez

Senior Reporter Cindy Gonzalez, an Omaha native, has more than 35 years of experience, largely at the Omaha World-Herald. Her coverage areas have included business and real estate development; regional reporting; immigration, demographics and diverse communities; and City Hall and local politics.