Paraprofessionals in California’s Behavioral Health Workforce


Janet Coffman, Irene Ornelas, and Amy Quan

Feb 2023

One in five adults in California had a mental illness in 2018-2019. Some 23.5% of these adults had unmet need for mental health services as did an estimated 64.5% adolescents with major depression.

The shortage of licensed behavioral health professionals, which affects communities throughout California, has heightened interest in using paraprofessionals who can be trained much more quickly. What do we know about this the paraprofessional workforce and how can we better activate this resource to meet the needs of Californians with mild to moderate mental health needs and substance use disorders?

This report from Healthforce Center examines three types of emerging behavioral health paraprofessionals whose roles do not require a bachelor’s degree nor licensure: peer providers, community mental health workers, and social and human services assistants.

Behavioral health paraprofessionals complement licensed behavioral health professionals by:

  • Connecting people to licensed professionals
  • Supporting clients’ engagement in treatment
  • Teaching clients coping, problem solving, and self-management skills
  • Addressing clients’ social needs (e.g., food, housing, transportation)
  • Sharing their lived experience with mental health conditions
  • Reducing the stigma around mental health needs

Funded by Kaiser Permanente Northern California Fund for Health Education at the East Bay Community Foundation, this report looks at the job market for paraprofessionals, employment issues, and education pathways. The researchers also make recommendations for ways to invest in education programs as well as in students, and identifies the neediest areas of California.