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VA unveils new scholarships for future mental health workers as agency works to address shortages

The Department of Veterans Affairsfacing a “severe” shortage of specialists, including in psychiatry, is offering new scholarships to future health care workers if they agree to work for the agency after obtaining advanced degrees.

The VA initiative announced Monday, called the Veterinary Center (Rehabilitation Counseling Service) Scholarship Program, would award scholarships to those seeking degrees in social work, psychology, mental health counseling or marriage and family counseling, according to one department. Press release.

“In 300 communities across the country, veterinary centers provide veterans, service members and their families with quick and easy access to the mental health care they need and deserve,” said the Secretary of the VA, Denis McDonough, in the press release. “These scholarships will help VA ensure that all veterans and service members – including those in historically underserved areas – have access to veterinary centers staffed with highly skilled, trained, and compassionate staff.”

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The VA plans to award these scholarships by the middle of next year. The scholarship would cover up to two years of mental health-related graduate school, and in exchange, the VA would require recipients to serve six years at one of its 300 veterans centers across the United States.

In July, the Office of Inspector General of the VA reported 2,622 “severe” staff shortages in almost 300 clinical and non-clinical professions within the department; psychiatry was noted as one of the five most common “institution-designated” shortages, and social workers were in the top 15.

While the number of staff shortages has declined overall since 2018 – which saw more than 3,000 severe shortages – nearly 500 positions became critically understaffed between 2021 and 2022, marking the first time in nearly five years that the VA has experienced a shortage, according to the Inspector General.

Mental health care at the agency has come under scrutiny due to the persistently high suicide rate among veterans. While the VA reported that the number of veteran suicides dropped nearly 10% between 2018 and 2020, the issue continues to be a problem for the department and families impacted by the outbreak; in 2020, the suicide rate among veterans was nearly 60% higher than that of non-veteran adults in the United States after adjusting for age and sex, according to a September department report.

It’s unclear how the assignment process for those who receive the scholarships will shake up, but recipients can expect to work in underserved areas that need more mental health professionals” and in states with a per capita population of more than 5% veterans.”

Veterans Centers provide social, psychological and mental health counseling to eligible veterans, active service members, reserves and National Guard service members and their families, according to the press release. More than 285,000 veterans, soldiers and their families received counseling at the centers last year.

The scholarship program stems from Commander John Scott Hannon’s Improving Mental Health Care for Veterans Act of 2019, which aims to improve mental health services for veterans and advance health research by “extending treatment protocols” and better identifying veterans vulnerable to mental illness.

November is also Warrior Care Month, a Defense Health Agency initiative aimed at raising awareness among service members and veterans affected by illness and injury, including mental health issues.

VVeterans and service members experiencing a mental health emergency can contact the Veterans Crisis Line at 988 press 1. They can also text 838255 or chat online at VeteransCrisisLine.net.

— Drew F. Lawrence can be contacted at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @df_lawrence.

Related: VA says veteran suicides continue to drop, but outside researchers find rates could be much higher

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