A loan forgiveness program is providing incentive for workers, while a Mililani clinic is fighting the stigma.

The behavioral health care worker shortage in Hawaii and the stigma around seeking mental health treatment are major issues facing service members and military veterans in the state.

Hawaii Gov. Josh Green highlighted these issues at a press conference on Thursday at the Steven A. Cohen Military Family Clinic at Child and Family Service in Mililani. 

“Our priority is behavioral health. We want to help people with addiction and mental illness,” said Green.

Governor Green, Military Clinic, Mental Health
Gov. Josh Green poses for a photo with employees at the Cohen Clinic in Mililani. (Alex Eichenstein/Civil Beat/2023)

The state has been dealing with a health care worker shortage for years, but even the need for psychiatric care in Hawaii has been underestimated, according to a recent report from the University of Hawaii. 

The Hawaii State Loan Repayment Program is one way the state has been able to attract health providers in recent years. The federal grant, which was enacted in 2018, provides education loan forgiveness for those who work with patients at nonprofit organizations in designated areas. 

A bill that would have provided additional funds to the program died in the Legislature this past session.

The shortage is especially acute in Hawaii because over 150,000 active-duty military members and veterans reside in the state, and this population experiences higher rates of depression and anxiety than their civilian counterparts.

“The reason we’re doing this is because there’s a huge gap, and we’re filling that gap in the military community,” said Dr. Anthony Hassan, president and CEO of the Cohen Veterans Network.

The Cohen Clinic offers free mental health care services exclusively for veterans and service members, regardless of discharge status, and their families. It also offers child care services and transportation to and from the facility in an effort to remove all barriers to care. 

The clinic, which is supported by hedge fund investor Steve Cohen, is one of 24 across the country. But Hassan is looking toward establishing a public-private partnership with the state to ensure that the Mililani location can sustain itself in the coming years.

“We have to support them, and we have to help providers and provide resources here,” said Green.

Earl Lau, the clinic’s intake coordinator, cites the stigma of mental illness as the biggest barrier to connecting veterans or service members to care.

More than half of the active-duty service members and their families who were identified as needing mental health services did not receive care, according to a 2020 report from the U.S. Department of Defense.

“Whether (the stigma) is being pushed on them by the military branch they’re in, their families, cultural or religious reasons or all of the above, they’re reluctant to call in,” said Lau.

Civil Beat’s community health coverage is supported by the Atherton Family Foundation, Swayne Family Fund of Hawaii Community Foundation, the Cooke Foundation and Papa Ola Lokahi.

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