Social work program receiving $1.9 million behavioral health workforce grant

A student from WCU’s master’s degree program in social work assists a client at an Asheville event. A federal grant of more than $1.9 million is funding a program aimed at enhancing the skills of social workers practicing in medically underserved areas of the region.

Western Carolina University’s social work program is receiving a federal grant of more than $1.9 million to continue an initiative aimed at increasing the number of social workers qualified to practice in the areas of behavioral health and substance abuse prevention on the Qualla Boundary, home of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, and in other medically underserved areas of Western North Carolina.

The grant for the Behavioral Health Workforce Education and Training Program has been awarded to WCU by the Health Resources and Services Administration of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The university will receive $479,919 in the first year and a total of $1,919,780 over four years to fund the program, a partnership involving WCU, the Eastern Band and the Center for Native Health. Pat Morse, head of WCU’s Department of Social Work and director of the university’s graduate program in that field, led the effort to obtain the grant.

WCU was awarded a three-year grant totaling just over $1.1 million in 2014 to kick off the initiative, which is designed to provide students in the university’s master’s degree program in social work with the skills to prevent and intervene in high-risk behaviors of youth by using a family-focused health care model that is sensitive to the culture and specific needs of the Eastern Band and other youth populations across the region, Morse said.

One use of the grant funds is to provide stipends of up to $10,000 to second-year students in WCU’s graduate program who plan to practice in WNC. Since the initiative began, 78 students in the WCU program have received the stipends, and almost all of them are working in the region and were hired by agencies across WNC before graduation or within three months of graduation. “According to the folks with the Eastern Band and other providers in the region, our graduates are extremely well-trained and provide much-needed behavioral health services to a region that has limited care,” Morse said.

The substance abuse prevention aspect of the initiative is important as the region deals with the effects of methamphetamine, prescription opioids and other addictive substances, Morse said. Typically, about half of the students enrolling in WCU’s master’s degree program simultaneously work toward a certificate in substance abuse studies.

Another aspect of the initiative will expand field placements for students in behavioral health and provide integrated training for students, as well as for faculty and field instructors, who work with the target populations.

“The initiative made possible through this federal grant is supporting important behavioral health services for medically underserved areas of the mountains while also providing a rich educational experience for our students,” said Doug Keskula, dean of WCU’s College of Health and Human Sciences. “We are proud to be able to continue our partnership with the Eastern Band and regional health providers.”

More information about WCU’s graduate program in social work is available by visiting and clicking on “Master of Social Work Program” or by calling Morse at 828-227-7112 or emailing her at