Dr. Lawrence Herman, DMSc, MPA, PA-C
As the mental health (MH) crisis in the United States continues to progress, the United States Air Force (USAF) is faced with a widening gap between qualified MH providers and patient demand. Post-pandemic changes have increased the need for MH services in a community that was vastly understaffed pre-pandemic. This increased demand and decreased supply has made it difficult for the USAF to compete with civilian sector pay.
In the USAF alone, the Primary Care Behavioral Health (PCBH) clinics charged with acute first-line MH intervention are only 47% staffed. Add that to the already concerning functional manning of social workers and psychologists, or those performing their primary profession and not in a career-broadening or command position, and one can see why staffing high-profile programs like the Operational Support Teams (OST) is difficult. Additionally, the limited number of seats and narrow eligibility requirements to recruit into the service’s Master of Social Work training pipelines limit the ability to grow the force's strength. Access to telemental health services for active-duty service members with a referral is available, but services are limited and not widely advertised. While institutional partnerships exist, many are excluded from recruitment efforts simply because the existing partnerships are the path of least resistance and thus promote a lack of diversity. Furthermore, retention is a top issue, with many social workers and psychologists leaving the USAF due to a lack of pay and promotion opportunities.
This begs the question, in lieu of increased pay and bonuses, what else can the service do if more social workers and psychologists cannot be recruited and retained? This manuscript examines the data and discussions with senior MH consultants, providing initiatives the USAF can leverage to improve patient access to a MH therapist.
Sims SE. Ten Initiatives the United States Air Force Should Employ to Improve Staffing of Mental Health Therapists. University of Lynchburg DMSc Doctoral Project Assignment Repository. 2024; 6(1).
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