America Needs Mental Health Professionals. Use The Defense Production Act To Get Them

In the U.S., creative employment of the Defense Production Act can speed development of trained mental health professionals. With the military facing a mental health crisis, authorities in the Act can get struggling service-members the help that they need to remain effective on the front line.

Using the framework of the Defense Production Act to help boost production of licensed professional counselors will have the added benefit of alleviating a grinding national shortage of mental health professionals.

The military’s mental health challenges are undeniable.

According to the Defense Department, “suicides among active-duty service members increased by more than 40% between 2015 and 2020. The numbers jumped by 15% in 2020 alone.” According to PBS, the rate has doubled in suicide-prone postings like Alaska, where therapists are in such short supply, those in need must wait weeks to see somebody.

The toll is extensive. Researchers at Brown University reported that, over the two decades since 9/11, 7,057 service members lost their lives in combat. 30,177 service members and veterans died by suicide over the same period.

Sexual assault is getting worse as well. Last year, the Defense Department estimated “that more than 8% of female service members experienced unwanted sexual contact in 2021, the highest rate since the department began counting in 2004”.

If unaddressed, these corrosive challenges eat away at military order, disrupting the always-fraught transformation of high-schoolers into adults. Ultimately, poor mental health support hinders the development of a cohesive warfighting team. It is pretty clear that, to fight better, America’s warriors need help grappling with life problems—marital challenges, personal problems, drug or alcohol abuse and sexual assault. The added psychic burdens of the military profession, coupled with easy access to guns, makes PTSD and suicide a continual professional challenge for all service members.

Time To Train Up A Therapeutic Cadre:

This can work. If the Defense Production Act can help alleviate pressing military supply challenges, it can, with a little creativity and elbow grease, be employed to speed production of U.S. mental health professionals.

This is more than just a military problem.

Mental health professionals are in desperately short supply across America. According to the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration, some 163 million U.S. citizens live in an area with too few mental health professionals—put another way, half of America’s population lacks sufficient mental health support.

To fill the national need, congressional representatives from both parties are coming together to propose some helpful half-measures—student loan forgiveness and other steps to help bring people into the profession.

It’ll take time, but the military itself needs better access to mental health professionals right away. None of America’s five most populous military bases can meet demand for mental health services. Fort Bragg, Fort Campbell, Fort Cavazos, and Fort Moore are all located in health professional shortage areas.

The reasons behind this national shortage in professional, licensed counselors are myriad. Woefully underpaid, mental health work is a tough, soul-sapping job, and prone to high-levels of practitioner burnout.

But a particular problem is that the whole enterprise is over-credentialed. To be a certified therapist, aspirants need both a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree in Mental Health Counseling. After classes end, aspiring therapists generally have a limited time to complete an indenture of some 2,000 to 3,000 hours to qualify for a licensure exam.

For a field where practitioners earn a median salary of $49,130 a year, the post-educational credentialing process—akin to a medical doctor’s residency— is burdensome and merits real streamlining,

The military could use a Defense Production Act-like framework to force through big changes, breaking America’s habit of over-credentialing, or pushing through a more-realistic national credentialing standard for counselors.

By streamlining the educational pipeline and then reducing the low-paid servitude facing early-career therapists, the military stands to revitalize the profession.

In particular, the military can try to reduce the new-counselor burnout rate by starting new counselors on a light therapeutic load, balancing a smaller caseload with a tough, deployed duty station—say, the 200 sailors aboard a deployed destroyer—and other Navy work. As low-ranking, O-1 Ensigns, these therapists will be making, on average, $89,058 a year—far more than they would make in their post-educational indentures.

It could work. Military chaplains, pressed into serving as uncertified and untrained therapists aboard destroyers, end up counseling, on average, 31 sailors a month. That’s a great workload for a junior therapist—it offers an opportunity for therapists to begin their career with a steady paycheck, a lower caseload, and some opportunity space to avoid early-career burnout. On top of that, the Navy is having trouble recruiting new chaplains or enticing active duty chaplains to leave less-challenging shoreside posts.

Aside from boosting America’s population of mental health professionals, streamlining therapeutic training could open the door to other, valuable service hybrids. Imagine if military chaplains—already burdened by daunting religious credentialing requirements of their own—could quickly acquire professional therapeutic training so they can contribute to the military’s mental health at a higher level. It would be a real boon for both the service and the chaplaincy.

Ultimately, if the military used Defense Production Act tools to force forward the speedy development of professional licensed counselors, both the Department of Defense and the rest of America would benefit. By creating demand, and by helping new therapists find their feet in their profession, military therapists, as they leave the service, will be a useful reserve component, and be able to alleviate America’s ongoing mental health emergency. It is an easy win, and the Pentagon should jump for it.

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