As U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan winds down, efforts to treat massive numbers of veterans for mental health issues is picking up. Military veterans will soon have better access to mental health services and suicide prevention efforts under a new plan aimed at expanding and improving several Veterans Administration (VA) programs.
An executive order signed by President Obama Friday directs the Department of Veterans Affairs to make sure any veterans expressing suicidal thoughts are seen by a mental health professional within 24 hours. Although that standard already exists at the VA, the agency often fails to meet the goal, and it can take months for veterans in some areas to see the appropriate doctor or social worker.
The order addresses understaffing problems at the VA by instructing the administration to partner with the Department of Health and Human Services, which can help it tap into community resources for qualified psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers, and other qualified professionals.
The executive order also directs the VA to identify and fix problems with attracting mental health care providers to its ranks. The VA said last summer that it plans to bring an additional 1,900 mental health professionals on board with improved pay, partnerships, scholarships, and loan repayment programs.
Additionally, the VA must boost the capacity of its veteran crisis hotline by 50 percent and put together a year-long nationwide suicide prevention campaign that can connect veterans to mental health professionals in their area.
“VA will work closely with our federal partners to implement the executive order immediately, and continue to expand access to the high-quality mental health care services our veterans have earned and deserve,” Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric K. Shinseki said in a statement.
The VA said last June that it assembled an in-house team of 21 people to carry out the plans.
The VA’s overhaul of its mental health and suicide prevention programs comes amid growing concerns about the number of veterans returning from the Middle East with traumatic brain injuries (TBI), most of which are caused by concussive blasts from improvised explosive devices (IEDs).
Of the 2.6 million troops deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, as many as 20 percent (520,000) are estimated to have some degree of TBI. Brain injuries can vary greatly in severity, ranging from mild concussion to severe brain trauma. Likewise, the effects of a TBI can vary greatly, but some of the most commonly reported symptoms include slowed thinking, memory loss, sleep disturbance, attention and concentration deficits, irritability, mood swings, and depression.
TBI has been linked to suicidal thoughts and actions in veterans and civilians alike. Add to the complications arising from TBI a level of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and cases of depression and suicide can become especially severe.
President Obama also told the Pentagon to review its mental health programs by quality and effectiveness so that the VA’s processes could be further improved. According to the order, “By the end of Fiscal Year 2014, existing program resources shall be realigned to ensure that highly ranked programs are implemented across all of the military services and less effective programs are replaced.”