Oswalt: Exciting Progress to Reduce the Shortage of Mental Health Professionals in Virginia | columnists

Debora Oswalt

Sometimes, the overwhelming nature of a large, complex problem prevents it from being resolved. This could certainly be true with the mental health crisis that Virginia is currently experiencing.

The COVID-19 pandemic and societal stressors have triggered depression, anxiety, panic disorder, and other mental health conditions across the state in an astonishingly large number of Virginians of all ages.

The growing demand for mental health services cannot be met by the shrinking number of behavioral health professionals in both the public and private sectors.

Thankfully, the Virginia General Assembly has stepped forward to help address this worrying shortage through a series of mental health workforce initiatives included in the newly approved state budget. This will help bring relief to many Virginians through a variety of approaches, including several innovative ones.

Problem No. 1: 61% of Virginia psychiatrists are 55 or older and 54 locations do not have a psychiatrist. Not surprisingly, these mostly rural locations perform far worse on key behavioral health indicators than the state as a whole. Unfortunately, the pipeline to replace those who retire isn’t even producing enough psychiatrists to maintain the inadequate numbers they currently practice. To help address this situation, the General Assembly funded 10 new psychiatric residency places.

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Problem No. 2: The number of licensed clinical social workers (LCSWs) and licensed professional counselors (LPCs) is insufficient to meet the demand for counseling and other therapies they are trained to offer.

The new state budget includes two innovative initiatives that will immediately increase the availability of counseling services and ultimately add more than 200 licensed therapists to the mental health practitioner legacy in Virginia.

One faces a significant financial barrier to licensing for Masters of Social Work (RSU) and Masters of Counseling (MC) graduates by paying for supervision of the clinical hours required for licensing. Many masters graduates cannot afford the fees for 100-200 hours of required supervision, respectively, and as a result Virginia is losing the advantage of having a large body of talented therapists. The new initiative, Boost 200, will experience the effect and value of the state supervisory payment of 100 RSU and 100 MC. Priority will be given to candidates practicing in any of the 93 Virginia locations that are areas of mental health care shortage (such as much of Roanoke Valley and points to the west), or people of color or who are bilingual.

The other inventive approach offers the opportunity to address the large volume of mental health problems of students in Virginia’s colleges and universities. The General Assembly has awarded undergraduate health centers funding to hire MSW or MC through grants from the State Council for Higher Education for Virginia. The necessary advice will be available under supervision in the short term and Virginia will get more LCSW and LPC in the long term.

Problem No. 3: Many children suffer from depression, anxiety, and other mental health stressors. Pediatricians typically don’t have the training to treat them and aren’t equipped to manage mental health in their medical practices.

The General Assembly has provided additional funding for Virginia’s creative and effective mental health access program, which provides pediatricians with the training and tools they need to serve children with mental health needs. This includes opportunities and access to education all year round and provides access to on-call child and adolescent psychiatrists 40 hours per week. It also provides assistance navigation and references to the necessary resources.

A strong workforce of licensed behavioral health professionals is essential to make the necessary mental health services available in both the public and private sectors. No single initiative can address the current and growing shortage. The multidimensionality of solutions and strategies requires a multi-pronged approach with cross-sectoral commitment, focus and investments of time, money and attention aimed at initiatives that will produce measurable results. To determine the most effective ways to expand behavioral health workforce, the General Assembly ordered the governor’s office to designate an executive branch member as a health workforce development consultant in Virginia and provided some funding to support the effort. .

Virginia is a “can do” state. It has been successful whenever its leaders have focused on elevating Commonwealth performance or rankings. The new behavioral health workforce initiatives included in the budget just approved by the General Assembly are a great start to addressing the shortage of these valuable and needed professionals. We are coming.

Oswalt is the founding director of the Virginia Health Care Foundation in Richmond, a public / private partnership. The foundation’s mission is to increase access to primary health care for uninsured and medically unattended Virginians through innovative programs and service delivery models.

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