VA Mental Health Researchers Continue to Break New Ground

VA Mental Health Researchers Continue to Break New Ground

The VA is honoring the achievements of its mental health professionals during Mental Health Awareness Month. Veterans’ mental health has long been a focus at VA — as far back as 1941, when we opened our first lab dedicated to researching neuropsychiatric disorders.

We know treating the minds of our nation’s heroes is just as important as treating their bodies, so today we continue our tradition of research and focus on Veteran mental health.

“This Mental Health Month, we celebrate VA professionals who have made groundbreaking discoveries that benefit the mental health of the nation’s Veterans every day,” said Darren Sherrard, associate director of recruitment marketing at VA. “We are always looking for qualified professionals to join our team who want to help improve the lives of Veterans through innovative mental health care.”

Groundbreaking research

In the past few decades, VA researchers have made important breakthroughs in the mental health field, such as locating a gene associated with schizophrenia and identifying gray matter loss common in several psychiatric disorders.

Today, they are always on the lookout for new approaches to treat and prevent mental health disorders. Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) research is a high priority and no more so than at our National Center for PTSD. As the world’s leading research and educational center of excellence on PTSD and traumatic stress, it synthesizes VA and external scientific research to promote better understanding, diagnosis and treatment of PTSD. Other current research focuses at VA include mood disorders, the co-occurrence of mental health issues and physical disorders, and more.

We also operate more than 20 Mental Illness Research, Education and Clinical Centers (MIRECCs) and other centers of excellence and innovation throughout the country. Here, we research the causes and treatments of mental disorders and put this knowledge into practice in VA.

Beyond research, we also develop and evaluate collaborative primary care models and have greatly expanded access to mental health services through telehealth.

Discover a rewarding career

If you’d like to work on the forefront of mental health research and practice, consider a career at VA.

We’ve demonstrated our commitment to mental health by hiring nearly 4,000 mental health practitioners since 2017.

It’s more than just a job — it’s a deeply rewarding mission to give back to those who have served. We take a holistic approach to care, so you’ll be a vital part of our patient care team.

We offer competitive compensation for mental health professionals, generous leave policy and free liability coverage. Other perks of a VA career include:

  • Higher education support
  • Flexible work schedules and shifts.
  • Diversity and inclusion policies and programs.
  • Low patient-provider ratios.
  • Career training and enhancement opportunities.
  • Dining options and a tax-free retail store.
  • A smoke/drug-free workplace.

Work at VA

By growing our team of practitioners and researchers, we can provide more Veterans with access to lifesaving, high-quality care and continue our success in mental health research. Consider choosing VA for your mental health career.

  • DISCOVER what a career in mental health looks like at VA.
  • EXPLORE VA careers at va.gov.
  • LEARN more about the benefits of a VA career.
VA Asking Retired Federal Health Care Providers to Come Back to Work

VA Asking Retired Federal Health Care Providers to Come Back to Work

The Veterans Health Administration (VHA) is directly contacting retired VA and Federal clinicians to join them in the ongoing effort to combat the coronavirus pandemic.

VA needs experienced patient-care providers during the crisis to help those already providing the best care to our Veterans at VA medical centers, outpatient clinics and community living centers.  

The department is reaching out to retired VA and Federal health care providers through social media, massive postcard mailings, email and word of mouth. VA staff are currently working the phones to ask if former colleagues are interested in coming back for a 120-day assignment, renewable up to one year.

“The nation’s health care system is dealing with an unprecedented crisis,” said Dr. Richard Stone, Executive In Charge, Veterans Health Administration. “Beyond VHA’s primary mission of providing care for our Veterans, we have a fourth mission, which is to be the safety net for our Nation’s health care system. We need everyone to join us in this fight, and recently retired health care professionals can come in and make an immediate impact.”

Stepping Up

After retiring in 2014, former VHA Chief Nursing Officer and Senior Nurse Executive Catherine Rick has answered the call and is awaiting her assignment from VA. “I could work virtually from home or I could travel. I’m healthy and I’m tech-savvy,” said Rick, who lives in the Phoenix area.

Rick said her high regard for VA staff and her experience in hurricane emergency response made her want to step up during the current health crisis. “In my 22 years of experience with VA, I can say I have the highest regard for everything VA does — and can do. There is an extremely talented staff across the VA system, and the work the emergency relief staff does made me think about what they’re going through. I knew their wheels must be spinning in overtime.”

VA is especially looking for nurses and other health care providers, including physicians, pharmacists, laboratory technicians and respiratory therapists, with interest and expertise in:

  • Direct patient care/support (at a VA medical center and/or outpatient clinic)
  • Tele/virtual care
  • Travel Nurse Corps

On March 19, 2020. the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM), approved a VA request to waive a section of Federal law to make it easier for the department to rehire retired VA health care providers. As re-employed annuitants, employees will receive their Civil Service Retirement System (CSRS) or Federal Employee Retirement System (FERS) annuities, as well as a paycheck as a Federal employee, without any offset to their retirement income. OPM instituted the waiver through March 31, 2021.

Expanding VA’s workforce helps the department better fulfill its mission of caring for our Nation’s heroes and supporting the Federal government in our public health mission during a pandemic.

Call to Action

VA needs you! If you would like to join your fellow health care providers in caring for our Veterans and support the national effort to combat the coronavirus, please do the following:

  • Register online if you are a retired nurse or health care provider interested in joining VA as a re-employed annuitant. Or email your availability and resume to vacareers@va.gov.  
  • Visit vacareers.va.gov if you are a registered nurse, nurse practitioner, physician’s assistant or certified registered nurse anesthetist interested in joining the Travel Nurse Corps, providing telehealth, or being assigned to a VA Medical Center.
  • Call retired nurses and other health care providers and share information about VA’s recruitment needs and efforts, including the:

You can also learn more about VA’s response to the coronavirus by visiting VA’s public health site.

Nurse of the Week: Cassie Dietrick, Mother of Two, Overcomes Deployment to Afghanistan While Working Toward Nursing Degree

Nurse of the Week: Cassie Dietrick, Mother of Two, Overcomes Deployment to Afghanistan While Working Toward Nursing Degree

Our Nurse of the Week is Cassie Dietrick, a mother of two who worked two jobs and overcame a deployment to Afghanistan, but never stopped working toward a nursing degree from the University of Wisconsin–Madison (UW-Madison).

Dietrick completed her nursing education almost entirely online and through clinicals at an area hospital, but very rarely stepped foot on campus. The flexibility of UW-Madison’s online nursing program was integral to her success. When Dietrich started nursing school, she had an associate’s nursing degree and a full-time job at St. Mary’s Hospital, plus a part-time job with the Wisconsin Air National Guard, with two young children to take care of at home. 

While most students take two and a half years to complete the program, Dietrick completed the program in one, even though she spent four of those months serving in Afghanistan. Dietrick was halfway through the nursing program at UW-Madison when the Guard called on her to deploy to Afghanistan. At the time, her youngest child wasn’t even one year old yet and she feared that a poor internet connection overseas might delay her studies and self-imposed deadline to graduate. 

Dietrick tells madison.com, “I kind of overextended myself, but feel like I do better when my plate is full.”

During her time overseas, Dietrick made a video call home to her kids at the end of each of her shifts, and then threw herself into her coursework, finishing five classes before returning home. She says she wanted to get as much done as possible so that she could spend time with her family when she came home. When her deployment was extended from three months to four, Dietrick still had 60 required hours of clinical observation that were unmet and she would only be weeks from graduation when returning home in November. Thankfully her mentor was willing to pick up extra shifts so that Dietrick could shadow her to get the hours she needed to complete her degree. 

Despite all of her setbacks and challenges, Dietrick managed to finish her clinical hours and walk across the stage this past December with her bachelor’s degree in nursing from UW-Madison. To learn more about Cassie Dietrick, a mother of two who worked two jobs and overcame a deployment to Afghanistan, but never stopped working toward her nursing degree, visit here

Nurse of the Week: US Marine Veteran Tori Levine Aims to Become Nurse Anesthetist for Doctors Without Borders

Nurse of the Week: US Marine Veteran Tori Levine Aims to Become Nurse Anesthetist for Doctors Without Borders

Our Nurse of the Week is Tori Levine, 22, a US Marine veteran and current nursing student at Stony Brook University who wants to become a nurse anesthetist for Doctors Without Borders.

Levine is from Dix Hills, NY, and says she knew she wanted to enlist in the military when she was nine years old. When her senior year in high school rolled around, Levine decided to defer college to enroll in the Marine Corps. She soon found herself serving as a collateral duty inspector for combat jets while deployed to the Middle East.

Levine tells news.stonybrook.edu, “I had trouble sleeping thinking about the maintenance I oversaw and imagining the worst possible cases: ‘What if something wasn’t connected right? What if the wire we repaired doesn’t hold? What if someone gets hurt? Did I make sure all of the tools were accounted for?’ With time I was able to gain confidence in myself and quit second-guessing when I know I had triple-checked it multiple times.”

Her military training eventually taught her discipline and provided her with mental jet fuel: “Being a nurse also appealed to me but I never thought I could do that because I struggled in the sciences. The military made me realize that what they say about mind over matter is true. I know now I can do it.”

After finishing her undergraduate degree, Levine eventually wants to become a nurse anesthetist and work for Doctors Without Borders. She feels she is aptly equipped to provide care and training to victims of war in the Middle East once she’s received the proper nursing training. She’s also trying to learn Russian and French, the two languages required to be accepted into Doctors Without Borders.

To learn more about Tori Levine, a US Marine veteran and current nursing student at Stony Brook University who wants to become a nurse anesthetist for Doctors Without Borders, visit here.

Home-Based Primary Care Provider Reduces Vets’ Excess Meds

Home-Based Primary Care Provider Reduces Vets’ Excess Meds

Every morning starts the same way for Veteran Kenneth Tutt, age 79. At 8:00am he makes a phone call to Nurse Practitioner Rhonda Weinhold. Weinhold is a VA Home-Based Primary Care (HBPC) provider. She has been working with Tutt for four years. Together they review his weight, blood pressure and sugar levels. “There is no doubt in my mind I would not be here if it was not for this program,” said Tutt.

Home-Based Primary Care is a VA program bringing primary health care into Veterans’ homes. HBPC provides integrated, patient-centered care for Veterans with complex medical needs. Veterans in the program are assigned a primary care provider like Ms. Weinhold, based at the Staunton, Va., community-based outpatient clinic. “The families, the caregivers in the home, they really depend on us,” she says. “A lot of our patients consider us part of the family.”

“So Many Medications!”

Recently, Weinhold began something new for Tutt and several other patients that has helped to reduce their medications and resulted in higher satisfaction with their quality of life. Not long ago, she attended a VA Geriatric Scholars Program class, which inspired her to develop a medication management program to review patient medication prescriptions. The idea came in part from a HBPC routine: setting up monthly medication boxes. “We love doing it, but we noticed our patients were on so many medications. We just thought, are there medications we could potentially get rid of that actually might be doing more harm or that are not needed?”

She teamed up with HBPC team member Jena Willis, Doctor of Pharmacy (PharmD), to develop the idea. The review, it turns out, often results in a reduction of medications. Weinhold says it is good because, “Research shows the more medication patients are on, especially for the elderly population, the greater the risk for falls.” In fact, Tutt admits to having fallen at home a few times in the past. They consolidate the medication de-escalation recommendations, adding them to each patient’s electronic health record. Tutt, like most HBPC patients, takes a lot of medications for a variety of health conditions.

Weinhold asked veterans, “How do you feel about trying to get off some medicine?” Tutt thought, “It was a terrific idea.” The project has helped Tutt feel he’s got a better chance of being the person he’s always been. “I’ve been an outdoor person all my life,” said Tutt, who served in the Navy from 1958 to 1970. “I garden, I raise flowers. I’ve had to cut back, but I’m still mobile.”

HBPC: Keeping Patients Safe in their Homes

“Our goal with Home-Based Primary Care is patient safety,” said Weinhold. “We’re there to keep them safe in the home and to keep them in the home as long as possible.” As they fine-tuned their process, Weinhold brought others onboard. It was a team effort. Three registered nurses met in person with 80 patients over six months. “We were able to reduce the number of medications an average two medicines per patient,” said Weinhold.

After their success in Staunton, they were able to coordinate with Salem VA Medical Center (VAMC) pharmacy residents’ grand rounds presentation on the de-escalation of therapy for the medical department there. The Salem VAMC is Staunton’s Community-Based Outpatient Clinic’s parent facility. The residents added the information to their presentation as an introduction to the rest of the medical facility. “The most rewarding thing is providing improved quality of life for our patients, whether it’s three more days, three more years, or 30 more years,” said Willis.

Maureen Jerrett is a contract writer for VA Geriatric Scholars Program

Here’s How One VA Facility Reduced its Nursing Turnover Rate

Here’s How One VA Facility Reduced its Nursing Turnover Rate

The Department of Veterans Affairs runs the nation’s largest health care system, but that doesn’t make it immune to the severe nursing shortage the U.S. is facing today. Not only are there not enough nurses, but medical facilities across the nation are seeing a higher turnover rate for these critical staffers. In 2018, the rate was 17.2 percent, according to one study.

It may be years before we find a permanent answer to this problem, but in the meantime, the VA Medical Center in Tomah, Wisconsin, has taken a series of steps that has cut our turnover rate by more than half. Here’s how we did it.

We started seeing nurse recruiting challenges about five years ago, and decided we needed to be proactive about ways to retain the nurses we had. After researching the issue, we created what we call the Nursing Stay Interview process.

Under this system, nurses are interviewed by their nurse managers after being on the job for 30 days, and then again after 90 days.

Some of the questions they are asked include:

  • What, if anything, would you change about your job?
  • What things would you like to learn more about or what experiences would you like to acquire?
  • What things demoralize you and make you long for the weekend?

The questions led to free-flowing conversations that helped staff discuss concerns and ideas with top leaders, and helped those leaders fix problems that kept these nurses at their jobs, serving Veterans.

After the first year of the Nursing Stay Interview process, turnover dropped by 52 percent in Tomah, Wisconsin.

Before we took this process on board, nurse managers recommended nurses stay in their units for a year before transferring to another unit – the idea was to prevent disruptive changes in staff.

But after our interviews began, managers could see examples of nurses who were hired into a unit that wasn’t the best fit, and more quickly move them to other units that align with their individual strengths and career goals. Instead of keeping nurses in units where they didn’t feel fulfilled and increasing the chance that they leave, the system helps us put them in units where they want to work.

We’ve since honed the process to ask specific questions of our nurses after 30 days, 90 days, and annually in order to make sure we’re identifying problems that could prompt them to become frustrated with their jobs.

Part of the process involves educating our nurse managers on how to conduct these interviews, and making sure they make the rounds to interview all of their new hires.

The process has been so successful that we’ve broadened it further to include LPNs and CNAs, and have included staff who provide mental health services such as social workers, psychologists, peer support specialists, and others.

Many might guess that nurses would tell the VA that they aren’t making enough money. But not a single nurse had that complaint. Instead, many said they were uncomfortable with coming to work and not knowing if they were going to spend their shift on their regular unit or if they were going to be floated to another unit for coverage.

After hearing that feedback, we created “pods” — a mental health pod, an acute pod, and two long-term care pods. We knew it may have been unrealistic to completely prevent floating, but we committed ourselves to reducing it as much as possible.

Nurses also told us that what we were doing for new employee orientation and nursing core orientation was not setting them up for success. As a result, nursing leadership met with the education department to adjust the curriculum to be more discipline specific so that RNs could get the orientation in education before starting.

As we evolve, we always let the staff know that changes are being made “because of the information we received from the stay interviews,” so they understand that their voices are being heard.

Marissa Dobratz is an RN who started her position in April and has already taken part in two stay interviews. She says she likes the process because “it offers an opportunity for a person to be part of the change. And, if you feel like you’re part of the change, you’re more likely to stay.” She had previously worked for an employer that did not offer such interviews and says that facility has a large turnover problem.

What we built in Wisconsin has worked so well that we shared it with other parts of the VA, including medical centers in Oklahoma and Texas.

It always makes sense to listen to your employees. But especially at a time when nurses are in such short supply, we’ve found that taking time to ask questions, listening to the feedback we get, and then acting on that information is going a long way toward retaining these valuable staff members.

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