(Comstock photo)

VA to increase mental health staff

The Department of Veterans Affairs announced April 19 that it plans to hire 1,900 new mental health positions. In its press release, VA said it would add about 1,600 mental health clinicians – to include nurses, psychiatrists, psychologists, and social workers – as well as nearly 300 support staff to its current work force of 20,590 mental-health staff, as “part of an ongoing review of mental health operations.”

“By authorizing nearly 2,000 more staff to help with their mental health services and treatment, VA is demonstrating its commitment to provide timely and high-quality health care to our nation’s veterans,” said Fang A. Wong, national commander of The American Legion.

Verna Jones, director of the Legion’s Veterans Affairs & Rehabilitation Division, said the announcement of the new positions “goes a long way in reassuring our veterans and the public that VA stands behind its commitment to provide the best care for those who have served in uniform. We urge VA to fill these new positions quickly.”

The staffing increase comes at a time when the Legion and Congress have shown concern over VA’s capabilities for mental health care. Last year, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., chair of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, directed VA to conduct a survey of its mental health professionals. VA developed a web-based survey that was sent to 319 mental-health providers in August 2011; it received 272 responses.

Seventy percent of the respondents believed their VA facilities lacked adequate mental health staff; the same percentage also felt their facilities needed more space for mental health services. Fifty percent of the respondents felt the growth in patient numbers contributed to mental health staffing shortages.

After the survey findings were released, VA’s national mental health staff investigated the areas of concern, visiting VA facilities to assess staffing and spacing needs, as well as waiting times for patients. They also looked at other specifics, including review of scheduling practices, development of improved performance measures and staffing guidelines, development of expanded policies for off-hour care delivery, and balancing the demand for compensation and pension exams with clinical services.

While VA’s mental health staff has increased from 13,566 in fiscal 2005 to 20,251 in fiscal 2011, the number of veterans being treated for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) has increased dramatically. Last year, VA treated 438,091 veterans for PTSD, and mental health disorders remain the second-leading diagnosis among returning servicemembers.

“We have heard from many veterans that they receive their initial mental health appointments at VA facilities within the 14-day requirement,” said Jacob Gadd, VA&R deputy director of health care. “But for cognitive processing therapy and prolonged exposure therapy treatment – these treatments generally take several appointments – this is where enough appointments may not be available because of understaffing, or a greater influx of mental health patients.”

In an August 2011 study, VA found that most veterans with new diagnoses of PTSD did not receive adequate specialty treatment (defined as nine or more clinic visits in one year). The study recommended future research on why veterans are not receiving enough treatment.

The American Legion established an ad hoc committee in 2010 to study the science, treatment and best practices for PTSD and traumatic brain injury (TBI). The committee’s final report, to be released in May, will include recommendations to Congress, DoD and VA on the best ways to ensure the proper care of servicemembers and veterans suffering from TBI and PTSD.


  1. I am just learning about PTSD ... returning from Iraq ( not the same ) At this point I mam not sure about the leadership and do they really understand that these programs are a "MUST" for all returning Vets ... some day I hope to be able to speak to others thru-out the U.S. about PTSD ... right now I am learning how to cop with this issue ... there is no question it will take a team to help me and others ... MSG Keith Walker Father Combat-vet Teacher and tai Ji student
  2. While I'm sure the addition of mental health staff is viewed, by the VA, as a positive step in patient treatment; it won't actually matter if the new clinicians, like the existing ones at various facilities, constantly interrupt the patient, to tell the patient what the patient actually means or needs, instead of listening to the patient to find out what the patient means and needs. I've encountered this rude and disruptive practice when being seen by doctors and clinicians at the VAMC for other medical problems. This sort of behavior by a mental health specialist would be an immediate turn-off and I certainly would not continue treatment for any mental health issue with anyone that performed in this fashion. It is bad enough to have to instruct a doctor on how to properly conduct a conversation (you speak and I listen and then I speak and you listen) when dealing with an arthritis related issue or to have to demand a patient complaint form to be treated like the VA claims they are required to treat patients, but to endure this sort of treatment while attempting to receive treatment for PTSD could put an end to seeking that treatment before any treatment was delivered. Increasing the staff might lessen the waiting times but if the Standard Operating Procedure remains to ignore and/or interrupt a patient seeking treatment then the increase will amount to nothing more than a waste of taxpayer money; unless, of course, the entire point of the VA exercise is to lessen the work load by alienating the veterans they are supposed to be serving. The verdict is still out on this but without real improvements in the manner in which patients are treated while being interviewed by the clinicians and doctors (BTW the I’ve found the doctors are far worse at interpersonal interactions than the clinicians) the improvements in staffing won’t equate to better patient treatment, but only more medical staff employed. Just a thought, Robert Ireland (PUFL) Post 174 Willits, CA
  3. I work at the VA in Fort Wayne. Additional staff is great if they are used efficiently. We have new clinicians joining the staff byt the existing clinicians are not used to their full potential. Statistics compiled by the local mental health management are manipulated to give the impression that they are short staff when they block clinic access and make it appear they are efficient.
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