Virginia is facing an acute shortage of mental health professionals


If you or a loved one wants help with a mental health issue, you may face a delay in finding the help you need.

“I was in a crisis. I was really a little down,” said David Craft, a mental health patient at Horizon Behavioral Health in Lynchburg.

Craft has struggled with his mental health issues since he was a teenager. Once he got help in his 20s, he says it was a game changer.

“There was a time in my life when I would not take my medicine. The Mental Health Expertise team convinced me to take my medicine every day. You are able to see things in a more rational way and more open, calmer if you will. I think the professionals are mostly why I benefited the most. They seem to be dedicated to the cause of mental health,” Craft explained.


It all started when the Horizon Behavioral Health team put him in touch with a consultant. That counselor taught him ways to deal with his social phobia and feeling anxious in social situations. Today, making 3D models helps him make it.

“It’s an escape. mental health during my trip, Craft said.

But now, it’s not that easy for others like Craft to get the help they need.

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The shortage of mental health workers is a nationwide problem. According to the Health Services and Resources Administration (graph below), 8,251 professionals are needed. There are over 6,546 areas designated as health care professional shortage areas, including Virginia.

“The mental health shortage in the field is a problem. Just like with many other professions right now. The problem decreases availability for clients, timeliness of services and finding a suitable provider for the individual. It limits their options and their access,” said AJ Harold, Senior Portfolio Director at Horizon Behavioral Health.

Harold says the alarming shortage is caused by a few things.


“Over the last few decades, the mental health field has really worked to reduce the stigma associated with mental health care. When stigma is reduced, people are more open and want to access care. This increases the demand on the ground. The pandemic it also had a big effect on mental health,” Harold said.

According to the National Center for Health Statistics, suicide rates rose in 2021, the most recent numbers, after a two-year decline. That time frame coincides with the pandemic. The data shows the number of suicides rose from 45,979 in 2020 to 47,646 in 2021. The number of suicides in 2021 was still below the all-time high of 48,344 in 2018.

The number of people seeking mental health help is also on the rise. Another problem, fewer people are getting certified to be mental health professionals.

“You have really specific degrees that people need to work in the field. Everything from bachelor’s degrees to master’s degrees. You also have your own doctors who specialize in mental health services,” Harold explained.

93 of Virginia’s locations are considered shortage areas.

The Virginia Health Care Foundation says 37 percent (or 3.2 million) of Virginians have it. People from our region are also included.

Deborah Oswalt, executive director of the Virginia Health Care Foundation, says it takes too much time, money and testing to get certified.

“Getting the education is important. But so is getting the necessary clinical experience and training,” Oswalt said.


Oswalt says a social worker needs 3,000 clinical hours with 100 of those hours supervised by someone who has been trained to supervise people for licensure purposes. For consultants, they have to carry out 3,400 hours of which 200 are supervised.

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“This has been a stumbling block for many people graduating from college. To get the supervision they need, they often have to get a job. Some jobs don’t provide the kind of supervision you need to get licensed; they may only provide supervision for the work, but not for licensing purposes,” Oswalt said. “So, those people have to do it themselves, and they have to find the supervisor and pay the supervisor themselves. This is a big deal because depending on where you live in the state, the hourly rates for supervision vary. It could be anywhere from $75 to $150 an hour.”

Oswalt says now is the time for key players to focus on increasing the number of licensed professionals in the industry.

“The good thing is that the General Assembly and both Governor Northam and Governor Youngkin have stepped up to address some of these issues,” Oswalt said.

In 2021, the General Assembly established a $1.6 million Virginia Behavioral Health Student Loan Repayment Program. This is intended to recruit and retain people in the field. An additional $3 million went to funding VHCF’s Boost 200 program, which pays 200 prospective social workers, counselors and therapists across the Commonwealth.

“This is increasing the number of therapists by 200. As a result 100 licensed clinical social workers should be produced. Along with another 100 licensed professional counsellors. This is something the General Assembly approved in the budget last June. We have all 200 people have met the priority criteria for the program. They’re on track. Now we’re in charge of paying for supervisory hours,” Oswalt said.


The General Assembly also passed a bill for a Licensure Compact, which allows professionals to work in different states without having to obtain another license.

The bill states “Licensed Professional Counselors; Counseling Compact. Authorizes Virginia to become a signatory to the Counseling Compact. The Compact permits eligible licensed professional counselors to practice in member states of the Compact, provided they are licensed in at least one member state. The bill has a delay with effect from 1 January 2024, and instructs the Board of Consultants to adopt urgent regulations in implementation of the provisions of the bill.”

Horizon Behavioral Health leaders in Lynchburg had to transform their business plan to keep up with the shortage.

Harold says he and his team have implemented the use of technology as much as possible, offering telehealth services to patients.

“Telehealth gives clients options that work with their personal schedules. It helps with proximity issues. We not only serve Lynchburg, we also serve our surrounding counties. It also helps people access mental health services, based on their preferences Using telehealth gives clients more options and uses our resources more efficiently. It really works to prioritize what we do with the staff we have,” said Harold.

Harold says understaffing hasn’t led them to cancel any services. Now Horizon is just less likely to apply for grants to expand new patient programs because of the number of staff members they have.

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“Back to accessibility. We’re always looking for ways to expand programs. We need ways to organize those programs and do those expansions. We’ve done a lot of these expansions over the past few years. We’ve been growing our school services, trying to get more professionals in schools. Most importantly, the shortage of mental health professionals is diminishing clients’ ability to have more services available to them. It limits people’s options for more specialty services,” Harold said.

Harold says regardless of the number of professionals on staff, they never turn down anyone who may need help or services.


If anyone comes here, we’ll get in touch with them and give them the care they need,” Harold said.

These actions, in support of the work Craft knows firsthand, are life-changing.

“Overall, I’m learning to get along with people more effectively in general. If they don’t get it, they will hit rock bottom. The mental health team can come and change their life to be a productive member of society. There’s a need for mental health professionals. There’s a real need. It just needs to be met,” Harold said.

If you or someone you know is struggling with their mental health, know that you are not alone.

Horizon Behavioral Health in Lynchburg offers many ways to get help. There are same-day assessments and scheduled appointments for individuals. To find out more about how they can help you, CLICK HERE.

If you know someone struggling with suicidal thoughts, you can call the Virginia Suicide and Crisis Lifeline. That number is 988.

Another available number is for the US National Suicide Hotline. That number is 1-800-273-8255.

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