For this article in my series on mental health I’m talking about United States Veterans and mental health care. Hopefully this series of articles has helped shed light on a very real problem in American society, mental health and the stigmas involved.
Helping The Heroes
A large portion of the population experiencing mental health issues and the accompanying stigma is our United States veterans. Of main concern is suicide. The number of veterans committing suicide is staggering, their numbers far exceeded the numbers for suicide among non service members. It currently stands at 22% higher than that of the general population. Dig into the statistics even further and you find startling numbers:
* In 2014 approximately 65% of veteran suicides were in the over 50 age group.
* Of the 20 veteran suicides a day last year 14 of them were not under VA care.
* Female veterans had a suicide rate of 250% higher than that of female non veterans
* Suicide was highest among males who served in Operation Enduring Freedom, Operation Iraqi Freedom, and Operation New Defense in the 18-29 age group.
Why is this?
Well we know that veterans experience unique challenges when returning home. They lose the intense feeling of belonging to something that they had in the military. They also experience higher rates of traumatic brain injury, post traumatic stress disorder and depression than their non veteran counterparts. The stigma of mental illness I spoke about in past articles can also hit our returning service men and women hard. In the military they were “tough”, supported, and able to hold things together. Upon returning home they feel the need to keep up that front. Older veterans especially find it hard to admit they need help. Apathy from the general population, lack of cohesive care, and a tough time navigating an already burdened VA health care system contribute to further complications.
It doesn’t help when high profile people paint mental health in a negative light. Ill timed comments can do lasting damage, furthering the stigma of PTSD, or in the very least minimize it. Take for example Donald Trump’s comments at an October 3, 2016 campaign rally in Virginia.
“they see things…a lot of folks in this room see and you’re strong and you can handle it, but some people can’t handle it.”**
This statement conveyed a fundamental and long held belief about mental illness, that mental illness is weakness. It’s damaging to equate strength with not having a mental illness when returning from combat. Strength has nothing to do with it. Mental illness is out of one’s control, we can no more control it than we can control who gets cancer. And to have mental illness so carelessly mentioned by the future president of the United States, I’m sure more individuals struggling with asking for help pushed it aside that day.
All of these factors are complicated by the complexity of the Veterans Administration and the VA health network. In the past few years the VA has been tooting it’s own horn in regards to their commitment to returning service members and the services they receive, including mental health treatment. But the reality is far from sunshine and roses.
The reality is a complicated system filled with confusing paperwork, limits on where you can receive care, and long wait times. Veterans wait on average a total of six months for a decision on disability claims, with more than half denied. An appeal will take an average of another two years. Veterans with benefits didn’t fare much better. 36 percent had to wait longer than six months for an appointment. And the so- called “Choice Program”? (The program allowing veterans to seek care outside of the VA network) 13,800 veterans last year that were eligible for the program were never added to the list authorizing care. The reality is a government agency filled with inept care and medical directors who don’t follow established guidelines because they “disagreed with them.” It seems the VA can not change their decades long reputation of inadequate care bureaucratic infighting.
Nothing illustrates this better that the case of 51 year old charles Ingram. On March 3, 2016, after waiting months for an appointment to see a clinician at his New Jersey VA clinic, he doused himself with gasoline and set himself ablaze outside the clinic. He was pronounced dead at a local hospital. Staff at the clinic repeatedly failed to see that he received adequate mental health care. After staff cancelled an appointment because there was no provider, they never followed up to reschedule. He walked into the clinic seeking another appointment and was told he would have to wait three months. Ingram, a Gulf war vet, had been authorized under the choice program to receive care at an outside facility, but no one notified him or set up an appointment. No one followed up on missed appointments, or checked on him in any way during his wait period. In my mind gross negligence on the part of the VA killed Mr. Ingram.
How can we make change? If we can’t do it at the government level, let’s do it on a personal level. Advocate, reach out, let people know that you care and will fight for them. Don’t let people suffer alone in silence. Help people figure out where they can get help. If not from the government, then from private agencies. Why do we let the very people who sacrifice so much for us suffer alone?
Regardless of your political views and beliefs, this is a human issue. Put bias aside and reach out to those who need care. Separate the human from the conflict. As the daughter of a Vietnam Veteran I have experienced these things on a first hand basis. I can truly speak of the inept care and lackadaisical attitude of the VA. I have watched someone I love struggle with demons we know nothing about. And ultimately lose their battle.
One suicide is too many. Whether it be civilian or military.
Vet Crisis Line 1-800-273-8255
For non governmental veterans assistance contact activeheros.org (a 501c3 charity)
- Stats from US department of Veteran Affairs and foreignpolicy.com
- Information from Huffington Post and USA today was cited in this article