Bridging the Gap: How Rio Salado College is Addressing Arizona's Behavioral Health Worker Shortage


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Tuesday, July 2, 2024
President Kate Smith and MCCCD students, including Rio Salado’s Marielena Aguirre after a roundtable discussion.

President Kate Smith (pictured right) and MCCCD students, including Rio Salado’s Marielena Aguirre (pictured second from left) after a roundtable discussion.

Roundtable discussion led by Assistant Secretary Wright-Gallo

Members of a roundtable, led by Assistant Secretary Wright-Gallo, discussing the need for behavioral health workers in the next few years.

Arizona is facing a need for behavioral health workers in the next few years and Rio Salado College, together with Maricopa Community Colleges, is working to fill that gap.

More than 2,400 behavioral health workers are needed in the next six years to fill a shortage in the state, according to a 2023 report from the Arizona Board of Regents, which oversees Arizona’s three state universities.

The need in the community was highlighted during a recent visit of  U.S. Secretary of Education Dr. Miguel A. Cardona and Assistant Secretary for Special Education and Rehabilitative Services Glenna Wright-Gallo at South Mountain Community College.

“Data supports the fact that we are in a youth mental health crisis in this country,” Cordona said. “One in three high school girls has considered suicide in the last three years. Eleven and a half percent of high school students have experienced severe depression. One in three high school students have experienced poor mental health.”

President Kate Smith attended the event and spoke with Wright-Gallo about the programs Rio Salado offers to meet the need and the aim to enroll more students in the future.

“In addition to our associate degree and certificate options, Rio will offer a certificate in Foundations in Behavioral Health Sciences online in the fall,” Smith said. “Our programs provide certificates students can use to enter the field as a behavioral tech and are stackable toward the associate and bachelor’s degrees. Rio students who want to pursue further education can seek a bachelor’s degree at our sister school, South Mountain Community College.”

Rio Salado enrolled nearly 600 students in Addictions and Substance Abuse (ASD) Disorders and Behavioral Health classes during the 2023-2024 school year and more than 350 students in Addictions and Substance Abuse Disorders (ASD) associate and certificate of completion programs.

One of those students is Marielena Aguirre, who took part in the visit with Cardona. Aguirre is seeking credentials in both ASD and social work and currently works as a behavioral health tech.

“I am very proud of where I am today and would never have thought I’d be up here advocating for education,” said Aguirre, who suffered from both drug and alcohol addiction in the past. “All I want to do is help others who are in my shoes. I also want to teach those who have not been in my shoes and cannot relate and help them realize this is an addiction.”

Arizona is experiencing a higher-than-average job growth rate for careers within the behavioral healthcare workforce. According to O*NET OnLine (a service of the U.S. Department of Labor), within ten years, projections are expected to rise 40% in demand for qualified entry-level mental health and social service graduates within Arizona, compared to 16% nationwide.

Rio Salado Faculty Chair of Addictions Studies and Behavioral Health Sciences Dr. Trish Hernandez said Rio Salado is in a unique position to help meet that need.

“Because we're online we get to have a further reach naturally,” she said. “That’s so amazing to be able to educate so many students.”

More than 90 Rio Salado students received scholarships toward their behavioral health education this year thanks to funding from AHCCCS, which allowed MCCCD to expand behavioral health programs at Glendale Community College, Mesa Community College, Phoenix College, South Mountain and Rio Salado. Among the Rio Salado scholarship recipients, 30 percent self-identified as being currently employed in the industry.

Scholarships are still available for new, incoming behavioral health students for their first semester. Applications will close Aug. 21. For more details, please email

Rio Salado offers several behavioral health programs for students interesting in joining this field:

Associate Degree: Addictions and Substance Use Disorders


The College is in the process of bringing the Certificate in Foundations in Behavioral Health Sciences to the campus with the goal of launching the program in fall 2024.