The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has issued qualification standards formally recognizing licensed professional counselors as mental health specialists within the Veterans Health Administration. The standards, released internally to VA staff late on September 28th, and available online at http://www1.va.gov/vapubs/viewPublication.asp?Pub_ID=507&FType=2, are the culmination of years of work by ACA, the American Mental Health Counselors Association (AMHCA), and the National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC) to open up mental health provider jobs within the VA to professional counselors. This is a landmark step forward for the counseling profession as well as an important means of expanding the pool of mental health service providers available to meet the large unmet treatment needs of our nation's veterans.
The new standards set categories and criteria for employment within the VA. The standards establish several levels of employment within the GS-101 series for counselors–entitled "Licensed Professional Mental Health Counselors" (LPMHC)–similar to and on par with the positions currently in place for clinical social workers:
GS-9: Licensed Professional Mental Health Counselor (Entry Level – for individuals with a graduate degree in counseling but who have not yet become licensed)
The regulations require counselors to have a master's degree in mental health counseling or a related field from a program accredited by the Council on Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP). Examples of related mental health counseling fields include, but are not limited to addiction counseling; community counseling; gerontology counseling; marital, couple, and family counseling; and marriage and family therapy.
If not yet licensed and hired at the GS-9 level, a VA counselor must become licensed at a date set by her or his supervisor. Failure to become licensed within two years from the date of appointment will result in removal from the GS-101 LPMHC series and may result in termination of employment. Once licensed, counselors must maintain a valid and unrestricted license to independently practice mental health counseling, which includes diagnosis and treatment.
While it is the last formal step in the VA employment process, it will take time for counseling positions to be posted on http://usajobs.gov or http://www.vacareers.va.gov, and for counselors to be appropriately recognized within the VA health care system. ACA, NBCC, and AMHCA are continuing to work with the VA on implementation of the new position descriptions and their use by VA facilities, as well as on obtaining the adoption of the standards by the federal Office of Personnel Management (OPM) for their use throughout the federal government. We will also be suggesting modifications to the standards, and monitoring their implementation to ensure that licensed professional counselors are being adequately recognized for–and hired in–mental health specialist positions within the VA.
To help us ensure the process is working, we strongly encourage counselors to contact us to share their experiences in seeking positions within the VA under the new standards. Please share your experiences with me at the e-mail address below.
On behalf of ACA, thank you for your interest, your support, your patience, and your service.
The ACA Public Policy Department
© 2007, Ohio Mental Health Counselor's Association.