TOGUS — Staff at VA Maine Healthcare System hope that they and the veterans they serve will benefit from plans by the federal government to add about 1,900 mental health clinicians and support staff.

Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki announced Thursday that the department will add 1,600 mental health clinicians and 300 support staff at locations around the country in anticipation of the needs of veterans returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Jim Doherty, spokesman at the Togus medical center, said it’s too early to know how many additional people the VA Maine system will be able to hire.

If VA Maine can hire more mental health staff, Doherty said they would first be added in general mental health, which deals with disorders such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and depression. After that, the next priorities would be post-traumatic stress disorder and substance abuse.

U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, D-2nd District, the ranking Democrat on the Veterans Affairs Subcommittee on Health, welcomed the news about the staff expansion and said he was hopeful Maine would benefit from the staff surge.

“It does take time for the VA to hire new staff … so this is extremely important,” Michaud said in an interview Thursday. “The demand is only going to go up, and I don’t believe that we’re doing enough to take care of those that currently need the help.”

Michaud sent a letter to the director of the VA New England Healthcare System outside Boston to ask for consideration of Maine’s needs. Michaud on Thursday noted Maine’s high rate of veterans per capita — they’re 10.4 percent of Maine’s population compared with 7.3 percent for the U.S., according to 2010 data from the VA and Census — and said he hopes the new resources won’t all go to Massachusetts.

Some of the most common health problems for veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan are traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder, Michaud said, so mental health services are especially important.

VA Maine Healthcare System includes Togus medical center outside Augusta and 10 outpatient clinics around the state. They serve about 39,500 veterans.

Six years ago, Doherty said, mental health services were offered only in Togus, Bangor and Portland, but now are at all sites. The system’s mental health staff has also increased from 43 in 2006 to 90 now.

Also in recent years, VA Maine has added teleconferencing consultations for veterans living far from clinics, an expanded psychiatric wing at Togus, an insomnia program and patient care teams that each include a mental health professional.

They also plan to build a 40-bed dormitory at the Togus campus for veterans in intensive programs, like a weeklong program for post-traumatic stress disorder, Doherty said.

Michaud said he has heard from Maine veterans who have had to wait months for mental health appointments.

Doherty said VA Maine has tried to ensure same-day access whenever possible, and he believes they can keep up with demand for the most part. If veterans cannot access the services they need, Doherty said they should call him or someone else at Togus to address the problem.

Susan McMillan — 621-5645

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