According to the RAND Center for Military Health Policy Research 20 percent of the vets who served in either Iraq or Afghanistan suffer from either major depression or post-traumatic stress disorder. 19.5 percent of vets in these two categories have experienced a traumatic brain injury. These three service-related disorders alone have an enormous impact on the demand for veteran mental health treatment.
Veteran mental health services are essential in order to help our returning vets recover from their combat experiences and mental health issues related to their military service. There are a number of troubling statistics which show that enough is not being done and that many of our veterans are not receiving the care that they deserve in this area.
Mental Health Treatment Barriers Veterans May Face
According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, 2.1 million veterans received mental health treatment from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in the five year period from 2006 through 2010. A study by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration revealed that only 50 percent of returning vets who need veteran mental health treatment will receive these services.
Both active duty service members and veterans face barriers to treatment for mental health issues. Some of the barriers veterans face, identified by the USGAO and other sources, include:
- Personal embarrassment about service-related mental disabilities
- Long wait times to receive mental health treatment
- Shame over needing to seek mental health treatment
- Fear of being seen as weak
- Stigma associated with mental health issues
- A lack of understanding or lack of awareness about mental health problems and treatment options
- Logistical problems, such as long travel distances in order to receive this type of care
- Concerns over the veteran mental health treatment offered by the VA
- Demographic barriers and false perceptions based on these demographics such as age or gender
According to the American Psychological Association, in the year 2005 22 percent of veterans sought veteran mental health treatment in the private sector rather than getting help from the VA. That number has increased along with wait times at many of the VA mental health facilities around the country.
Veteran Mental Health and Substance Abuse
One important aspect of veteran mental health treatment is substance abuse. The National Institute of Drug Abuse reports that substance abuse among veterans is strongly related to their exposure to combat. One study by the organization showed that 25 percent of returning Iraq and Afghanistan veterans showed signs of substance abuse disorder.
At the National Veterans Foundation, many of the crisis calls we handle begin with issues of isolation and loneliness. Untreated, this can lead to substance abuse, relationship problems and violent behavior.
Another study by NIDA showed that in 2008 active duty and veteran military personnel abused prescription drugs at a rate that was more than twice the rate for the civilian population. In 2009, the VA estimated that around 13,000 vets from Iraq and Afghanistan suffer from alcohol dependence syndrome and require veteran mental health treatment for this problem.
The Link between TBI and PTSD
The New England Journal of Medicine performed a survey that identified a link between traumatic brain injury or TBI and post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD. The evidence showed that military members who experienced a traumatic brain injury were more than twice as likely to suffer from PTSD later on than service members who did not suffer a TBI. The PTSD onset was generally 3-4 months after returning from deployment.
One important component of veteran mental health treatment is identifying when this treatment is needed. For newly released veterans the delay between the TBI and the onset of PTSD could mean that the service member has been discharged before they experience severe symptoms. For older vets the PTSD symptoms that they experience could last for many years and require extensive treatment.
Veteran Health Care Funding Needs to be Increased
The funding allocated for veteran mental health care needs to be increased so that every veteran has easy access to this type of care when they need it. Our veterans should never be used as political pawns in spending battles and excessive wait times at local VA facilities need to be addressed and reduced through additional spending as well.
We can no longer look the other way or continue to under fund the mental health care system that our veterans use. These men and women stepped up and sacrificed to protect our country and population, the least we can do is ensure that they have the needed mental health treatment services available after they return home and are discharged from the military.
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The worst part of war should not be coming home.