VA Unveils New Scholarships for Future Mental Health Workers as Agency Works to Combat Shortages

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Airman writes message during a Suicide Prevention Month event.
Airman writes his reason for living during a Suicide Prevention Month event Sept. 8, 2021, from an undisclosed location somewhere in Southwest Asia. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Karla Parra)

The Department of Veterans Affairs, facing "severe" specialist shortages including in psychiatry, is offering prospective health care workers new scholarships if they agree to work for the agency after earning advanced degrees.

The VA initiative announced Monday, called the Vet Center (Readjustment Counseling Service) Scholarship Program, would award scholarships to those looking to earn degrees in social work, psychology, mental health counseling, or marriage and family counseling, according to a department press release.

"In 300 communities across the country, Vet Centers provide veterans, service members, and their families with quick and easy access to the mental health care they need and deserve," VA Secretary Denis McDonough said in the press release. "These scholarships will help VA ensure all Veterans and service members -- including those in historically underserved areas -- have access to Vet Centers with highly-qualified, trained and compassionate staff."

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The VA expects to award these scholarships by the middle of next year. The scholarship would cover up to two years of graduate mental health-related studies and, in exchange, the VA would require recipients to serve six years at one of its 300 veteran centers in the U.S.

In July, the VA's Office of Inspector General reported 2,622 "severe" staffing shortages across almost 300 clinical and nonclinical occupations within the department; psychiatry was noted as one of the top five most common "facility designated" shortages, and social workers were in the top 15.

While the number of staffing shortages decreased overall since 2018 -- which saw over 3,000 severe shortages -- nearly 500 positions became critically understaffed between 2021 and 2022, marking the first time in almost five years that the VA has seen a shortage, according to the inspector general.

Mental health care at the agency has come under close scrutiny because of the continued high suicide rate among veterans. While the VA reported that veteran suicide numbers have dropped by nearly 10% between 2018 and 2020, the issue continues to be a problem for the department and families affected by epidemic; in 2020, the suicide rate among veterans was almost 60% greater than non-veteran adults in the U.S. when adjusted for age and gender, according to a September department report.

It is unclear how the assignment process for those who are awarded the scholarships will shake out, but recipients can expect to work in underserved areas in need of more mental health professionals "and in states with a per-capita population of more than 5% veterans."

Veteran centers offer social, psychological and mental health counseling to eligible veterans, active service members, reserve and National Guard troops, and their families, according to the press release. More than 285,000 veterans, troops and their families received counseling at the centers last year.

The scholarship program stems from the 2019 Commander John Scott Hannon Veterans Mental Health Care Improvement Act, which aims to improve mental health services for veterans and advance mental health research by "expanding 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 for service members and veterans affected by illness and injury, including mental health issues.

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

-- Drew F. Lawrence can be reached at drew.lawrence@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @df_lawrence.

Related: VA Says Veteran Suicides Continue to Fall, But Outside Researchers Find Rates May Be Much Higher

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