Catawba pushes forward; how an area hospital deals with a statewide staffing problem

Short-staffed Virginia mental health hospitals battle a lack of nurses

Newly released information shows mental health hospitals across the state are suffering from a lack of nurses. In many cases, facilities have the funding but are having a hard time hiring and retaining staff.

The new report came earlier this month from the Virginia Department of Behavioral Health. It says one mental health hospital in Virginia is only at 40 percent of its potential nursing staff.

Catawba Hospital in Roanoke County has been at 80 percent of its nursing staff this spring. It’ll receive more funding next week and have the potential to add 10 more nurses.

"That's great. We've been fighting for that, asking for that, for a number of years,” Catawba Hospital Director Walton Mitchell said.

Mitchell, who goes by Mitch, says the hospital is close to hiring a few more nurses but has had to battle against, at times, a lack of candidates.

"We have made a number of efforts in the past year to help with recruitment and retention of nurses,” he said.

He says giving incentives such as signing bonuses is important.

Republican delegate Joseph Yost agrees. Representing Virginia’s 12th district, he fought in the General Assembly a year ago to keep the hospital open when there was talk of it closing down. Now, the funding hurdle is cleared.

"The other, bigger challenge is actually finding people to take those positions,” he said.

He's on a subcommittee that studies mental health. He says Virginia is looking at partnering with RN programs across the country, and even internationally, to bring in candidates.

“It's not just the mental health system,” he said. “For all health care professions in the commonwealth, there are lapses in service."

Yost and Mitchell say this problem isn’t unique to Virginia.

"Certainly, I think these efforts will help,” Mitchell said. “Nationwide, there's a nursing shortage. It's not just us. It's not just Catawba. It's not just the commonwealth of Virginia."

Radford University faculty member Vicki Bierman teaches future nurses the complexities of behavioral health. She says every nurse needs to have an understanding of it.

"Because you can't get away from it,” she said.

She says America’s health care system needs to improve for nurses like her to help the most people.

"For me, I think it's a right for all of us to have health care and we're not providing that."

She also works at the Pulaski Free Clinic, which, through grant money, has staffed its nursing force in part through Radford University students to provide integrated care that includes psychiatric services.