A shortage of workers is hindering efforts to improve mental health care in Virginia

More providers are expected to retire over the next several years than there are graduates to replace them
Eastern State Hospital in James City County
Eastern State Hospital in James City County(Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services)
Published: Oct. 27, 2021 at 12:50 PM EDT
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Virginia’s already strained mental health workforce is expected to shrink more over the next several years, threatening the state’s efforts to improve access to care.

The data, collected by the Virginia Health Care Foundation, comes as the state continues to grapple with a crisis in behavioral health services. Earlier this summer, staffing shortages forced more than half of Virginia’s state-run psychiatric hospitals to close to new admissions. While the facilities have since reopened, a lack of workers continues to limit the number of patients they can safely accept, according to Alison Land, commissioner of the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services.

Private hospitals have also reported growing demand for mental health services throughout the pandemic. At the same time, licensed community providers are being inundated with new treatment requests, according to Debbie Oswalt, the executive director of the foundation.

“We specifically asked them about the impact of the pandemic and they all said they were overwhelmed,” she said. “One psychologist told us he doesn’t even keep a waitlist anymore because what’s the point?”

Amid ongoing initiatives to shore up services, the dearth of providers presents a more fundamental problem for the state. According to the foundation’s report, there are already wide disparities in access to behavioral health care. Fairfax County, for example, has five times as many providers as anywhere else in the state, while two localities — Craig and Surry — don’t have a single licensed mental health professional.

But there’s also concern that the workforce will continue to dwindle over the next several years. The foundation examined five types of licensed providers, including psychiatrists, psychologists and psychiatric nurse practitioners. In each field, a significant portion are nearing retirement age.

Among licensed psychiatrists in Virginia, 61 percent — a total of 677 providers — are at least 55 years old. For clinical psychologists, it’s 36 percent or 1,030 workers. Thirty-nine percent of psychiatric nurse practitioners (212 in all) are nearing retirement age.


.(Virginia Mercury)

The Virginia Mercury is a new, nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization covering Virginia government and policy.

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