Nichole Girten/Daily Montanan

University of Montana graduate school student Rachel Keo felt “pure relief” when she found out she had passed the National Counselor Exam earlier this year.

She wasn’t alone. All of the 21 students in her graduating class who took the exam this spring passed, something that didn’t surprise Keo.

“We were all pretty determined,” Keo said.

The NCE is a requirement to practice as a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor in the state of Montana, a state experiencing a significant mental health care professional shortage.

At least 50 of Montana’s 56 counties were designated as Mental Health Professional Shortage Areas (HPSA), according to a Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services designation using HPSA data from 2021.

UM Professor John Sommers-Flanagan said the exam could be compared to the legal field’s bar exam, as it tests to ensure professional competence in the field, but additional requirements are needed to become an LCPC, which can vary by state as well.

Keo said she would need to fulfill clinical and non-clinical hours, kind of like a residency, before she can get her license to practice. Of the cohort graduating this spring, Keo said nearly everyone would be staying in Montana.

Sommers-Flanagan said that the 100 percent passage rate is a good sign, and a pretty consistent metric for the Counseling Department, but that in order to meet the demand in Montana, schools like UM are going to need more resources, namely more faculty.

National accreditation is a double-edged sword in this scenario. Sommers-Flanagan said that being nationally accredited is a great tool in recruiting students, with the program receiving around 100 applicants last year vying for about 30 spots.

“The national accreditation standards are such that they’re going to limit the student-faculty FTE,” Sommers-Flanagan said of full-time equivalents. “We couldn’t admit 100 students and keep our national accreditation; we’d be out of compliance.”

Sommers-Flanagan said this is an obstacle across the state in terms of being able to keep accreditation and meet the demand.

“We would all need more resources because we have very clear limitations in terms of student faculty ratios,” he said.

Sommers-Flanagan said the program recently added one new faculty member, for a total of six full-time, tenure track faculty in the Counseling Department at UM, “which is the most ever.”

He said when he first taught in the program as an adjunct professor in the ’90s, two faculty members taught classes. He said the school permits students in the doctoral program to teach select classes under supervision, but said most classes are taught by faculty.

Sommers-Flanagan also spoke to a collaborative effort with Montana State University to help address mental health needs in rural communities through the grant funded Rural Mental-Health Preparation/Practice Pathway program. The schools partnered with state agencies to send graduate counseling candidates to work as counselors in rural communities as part of their schooling.

Keo is taking a break after finishing up her internship with the Student Advocacy Resource Center at UM. She said her time working at the center in Missoula inspired her to pursue working with college students when she moves to Seattle.

“They’re already in a place where they’re learning and growing and when it comes to counseling. You can see that they have a curiosity about them,” she said. “That kind of makes more fun to me.”