The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has launched a scholarship program to recruit mental health and counseling professionals to help underserved U.S. facilities amid veterans facing an increasing need for such services post-Afghan War, among other mental health issues, Military.com reported.
This year, VA Vet Centers will be awarding at least five scholarships to cover two years of mental health schooling – in fields such as psychology, social work, family counseling – in exchange for working six years at one of 300 underserved Vet Centers. Vet Centers are meant to be a point of initial contact for veterans, troops, and family members looking for help on psychological or social issues, such as post-traumatic stress and military sexual trauma (MST).
"[Underserved areas] could be places where we've historically had challenges bringing in qualified mental health counselors or mental health positions," Michael Fisher, Iraq War veteran and chief readjustment counseling officer for the Veterans Health Administration. "It could also be places where we're experiencing turnover."
The 20-year anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq also comes this year.
"I think we're seeing more individuals that are reengaging back into Vet Centers," Fisher said. "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."
The scholarship comes as a result of the 2019 Commander John Scott Hannon Veterans Mental Health Care Improvement Act. Applications opened Mar. 15, and VA hopes to choose by Apr. 14, with veteran preference.
"What that allows us to do is create that instant connection with that individual because we speak the same language," Fisher 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."
The scholarships will begin in Summer or Fall 2023, with Fisher seeking to offer it on a rolling basis to keep up with Vet Center needs and semester schedules.
Patient population at the VA has risen significantly, and the VA has been hiring employees at a rapid rate to meet a 52,000 end-of-year-goal, according to VA officials.
In 2022, the VA's Office of Inspector General reported that the department had more than 2,600 "severe" shortages across nearly 300 critical positions. Psychology ranked fourth most critical, psychiatry ranked fifth, and social work ranked 13th.