While we continue to see a growing need for mental health providers in the VA, there is a large, untapped pool of highly-qualified mental health professionals ready to be enlisted to help provide services to veterans. Nationwide, there are more than 120,000 professional counselors licensed for mental health practice across the country, meeting education and training requirements on par with or more stringent than those of other master’s level mental health professionals, such as clinical social workers and marriage and family therapists. Licensed professional counselors must have a master’s degree in counseling, pass a national exam, accumulate thousands of hours of post-master’s supervision, and adhere to a strict code of ethics.
In December of 2006, Congress and the President enacted legislation explicitly recognizing licensed professional mental health counselors as clinicians within VA facilities (P.L. 109-461). Almost four years later, the VA adopted an occupational standard for “licensed professional mental health counselors” (LPMHC) within the VA. Two years after the standard was adopted, and going on nearly seven years after the enactment of P.L. 109-461, licensed professional counselors are still being largely shut out of the VA mental health workforce. This deprives veterans of access to the best possible pool of highly qualified mental health providers. In 2012, the VA only posted 58 positions for licensed professional mental health counselors nationwide; during this time, the VA posted 1527 mental health clinician positions as open only to social workers.
How You Can Help
Unfortunately, the VA has not taken adequate steps to incorporate counselors into its workforce and won’t unless Congress exerts pressure. Members of Congress can take specific steps to push the VA to begin bringing counselors on board in significant numbers. Specifically YOU
need to call your Member of Congress and demand that they direct the VA to:
1. Expand the eligibility criteria for LPMHC positions to include mental health counselors who:
- Hold at least a master’s degree in counseling from a regionally accredited program;
- Are licensed as a professional counselor in a U.S. jurisdiction at the highest level of licensure offered; and
- Passes the National Clinical Mental Health Counseling (NCMHCE) Exam. (The VA’s current occupational standard does not include any specific examination requirements.)
2. Include counselors in its paid trainee program. These positions--long open to both psychologists and clinical social workers--are a well-trod pathway to careers within the VA, and counselors are being unfairly and arbitrarily discriminated against by being excluded from the program.
3. Collaborate with ACA and other groups to help fill vacancies in the VA. ACA has a national network and an office of professional affairs that can help find applicants for these positions.
4. Appoint a liaison to work with the counseling community toward hiring more LPCs in the VA.
5. Issue a public notice to the entire VA healthcare system (Specifically to VISN Directors, VMAC Directors and HR Directors) reminding them that they are empowered to hire counselors, and asking them not to shut-out an entire profession that can provide desperately needed help to our vets.