The Ballmer Group’s $38 million commitment to address the state’s shortage of mental-health professionals is extraordinary in both size and strategy.

The gift is intended not just to train hundreds of desperately needed social workers, counselors and other behavioral-health specialists, but to weave a solid safety net from the fragments of Washington’s chronically underfunded and fragmented behavioral-health systems. It will connect and align existing resources and drive meaningful change over the next five years.

The philanthropic organization, founded by former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer and his wife, Connie, carefully crafted the package of gifts in consultation with experts in touch with front-line efforts to serve those who are struggling. It is a game-changer, by design.

The bulk of funds will invest in staffing at community-based behavioral-health programs, which serve many of the state’s most vulnerable residents. More than 400 graduate students in social work and mental-health counseling will have access to financial support at more than a dozen Washington colleges and universities. In exchange, these students will commit to working in community-based agencies for three years.

The University of Washington School of Social Work will coordinate the program. Schools and providers will collaborate to develop effective curriculum, clinical education, internships and mentoring for these diverse groups of motivated students who might not otherwise be able to afford graduate school.

A $3 million grant will fund a new undergraduate Behavioral Health Support Specialist program the UW Medicine Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences is developing. It is based on a similar program that’s trained thousands of undergraduates in effective counseling and therapies for Britain’s National Health Service, said department chairman Jürgen Unützer.


“It’s not pie in the sky,” he said. “We actually know that it works.”

Grants to the UW Behavioral Health Institute at Harborview Medical Center will launch statewide behavioral-health apprenticeship programs and a process to develop recommendations for overhauling the state behavioral-health crisis response system. Smaller grants to the Washington Council for Behavioral Health, Washington State Health Care Authority and Washington State Opportunity Scholarship will drive other targeted changes.

Together, these grants add up to an elegant and ambitious plan to transform a fragmented system. They build on the Legislature’s recent capital investments, including the $200.5 million behavioral-health teaching facility and psychiatry residency program, while continuing to identify system needs.

For too long, the state’s underinvestment in behavioral health has been a source of shame and unnecessary pain in Washington communities. These investments could open a bright and welcome new chapter of support.