The Department of Veterans Affairs launched a scholarship program last week aimed at recruiting mental health and counseling professionals to underserved facilities across the country.
The program also seeks to help boost a "severe" specialized worker shortage as veterans face an increasing need for their services post-Afghan War, among other mental health crises affecting the community.
The scholarship comes as the VA embarks on a recruiting blitz, hiring tens of thousands of employees against an increasingly attainable 52,000 end-of-year-goal, according to VA officials, as the overall department contends with a recent spike in patient population.
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Vet Centers, counseling centers the agency runs nationwide, are looking to award at least five scholarships to prospective psychologists, social workers or family counselors this year in exchange for working in underserved areas. The VA hopes it's just the start of what will be an expanding program.
The Vet Center program will cover two years of professional mental health schooling -- psychology, social work, family counseling, among other disciplines -- in exchange for six years at one of 300 underserved Vet Centers under the department.
"The ability to provide scholarships -- it's addressing the challenge of going out and finding qualified mental health professionals to provide services at Vet Centers across the country," Michael Fisher, chief readjustment counseling officer for the Veterans Health Administration, told Military.com in an interview Wednesday.
"What it allows us to do is go out and find individuals, give them an incentive for coming to work for us so they don't have to worry about finding a job when they graduate," he added, "allowing us to get into those communities and providing high-quality mental health counseling."
The scholarships are coming at a critical time for veterans who may be experiencing mental health issues after the end of the Afghan War or recently, the 20-year anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
"I think we're seeing more individuals that are reengaging back into Vet Centers," said Fisher, who is an Iraq War veteran himself, adding that much of the discussion in these centers often focuses on the reaction to the withdrawal or the anniversary of the invasion. "Anniversaries come up and they bring up feelings, and our role at Vet Centers is to create that community -- whether that's the veteran community, whether that's the veteran or service member to interact in their family community -- to be able to work through those thoughts."
Applications for the scholarship program opened March 15, and the department hopes to make selections by April 14. The scholarship, which was born out of a 2019 law called the Commander John Scott Hannon Veterans Mental Health Care Improvement Act, would start in the summer or fall semester of this year, depending on school schedules.
Vet Centers are intended as an initial contact for veterans, troops and their family members looking for help on psychological or social issues, including post-traumatic stress and military sexual trauma, or MST.
Vet Centers have specific prerequisites for eligibility, which include service members who deployed to combat, experienced MST or operated drones, among other requirements.
Some centers are underserved, according to Fisher, who said the scholarship is looking to bolster teams in rural or tribal areas that might lack coverage, for example.
"It could be places where we've historically had challenges bringing in qualified mental health counselors or mental health positions," Fisher said of underserved areas. "It could also be places where we're experiencing turnover," an issue that he said could be caused by staff leaving for the private sector, for example.
Last year, the VA's Office of Inspector General reported that the department was experiencing more than 2,600 "severe" shortages across nearly 300 critical positions. While those positions ranged from custodial worker, which was ranked as the most critical, to gastroenterologist, mental health services accounted for 188 shortages shown among the top 15 occupations.
Psychology and psychiatry ranked four and five, while social work accounted for 44 critical shortfalls at number 13.
Fisher said the primary focus of the scholarships is to build "multidisciplinary teams" in underserved areas, or where turnover is high and pools of eligible mental health professionals are small.
Veteran preference will be given for the scholarships, hoping to capitalize on what Fisher referred to as "peer-to-peer" connections.
"What that allows us to do is create that instant connection with that individual because we speak the same language," he said. "And then fall back on our education, our experience, our training as qualified mental health professionals to be able to provide the best possible readjustment counseling."
Fisher is looking to offer the scholarship, one of at least five professional programs aimed at bolstering the department's workforce, on a rolling basis to keep up with Vet Center needs and semester schedules.
Last year, the VA said more than a quarter-million veterans, troops and their family members used counseling resources, accounting for nearly 1.4 million encounters.
Fisher said that he expects the number of encounters at Vet Centers to increase, at least in part because he is hoping to expand services to veterans whom the VA has not yet engaged.
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.
Editor's note: This story has been updated to clarify that psychiatry is not one of the disciplines covered under the scholarship program.
-- Drew F. Lawrence can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @df_lawrence.