The recent headline on the Drudge Report screamed, MORE AMERICANS NOW COMMIT SUICIDE THAN DIE IN CAR CRASHES. In a Wall Street Journal opinion article last week, we read about the life of Peter Wielunski, a veteran who, while receiving care from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) for Post-Traumatic Stress (PTS), took his own life. Another life cut short quite possibly by invisible wounds of war.
These stories are unfortunately, becoming all too frequent as we as a nation continue to struggle to adequately address the causes and effects of mental health issues like PTS on servicemembers, veterans, and civilians alike. Sadly, while these stories result in a lot of talk, a lot of articles, and a lot of analysis, they don’t often result in a lot action.
September was Suicide Prevention Month. More than 105 Americans commit suicide a day. Included in that statistic, it is estimated by VA and the Department of Defense that 18 veterans, and one active-duty servicemember, take their own lives every day. Those numbers are too high, despite the fact that more often than not, the treatment for PTS is readily available. Just not always through VA when it is needed most. And therein lies the problem.
In April, the VA Inspector General released a report that found that more than half of the veterans who seek mental health care through VA wait an average of 50 days to receive a full evaluation when they reach out for help. As Robert M. Morgenthau rightly pointed out, despite significant increases in VA’s mental health care budget over the past four years, VA is “still unable to provide timely care to every veteran seeking treatment or to reach out to many of those who are most at risk.”
Further, research suggests that those who do seek treatment at VA do not complete the recommended, evidence-based treatment regimen. While no one can argue that more resources for treatment has been money well spent to care for the men and women who have served, if it is not being used to connect those struggling with the services they need when and where they need them, and on a sustainable basis to actually improve health, it is of little use.
Eleven years into a multi-front war, we need to ask the tough question: is there better way forward?
I believe there is, and it is one that doesn’t require a new agency or bureaucracy. It doesn’t require trying to make myriad government programs work together. What it does require is an open mind. VA does not have the mental health care capacity to handle the number of veterans in need of treatment. In fact, VA has a mental health care provider shortage. Moreover, with approximately 40 percent of veterans residing in rural or highly rural areas, a VA facility is not always easily accessible.
If VA were allowed, however, to utilize a network of providers that is already in place and already works with our military and their families, such as TRICARE, then we might start making a difference in saving lives. By tapping into the TRICARE network, we would more than double VA’s mental health care capacity overnight.
That means more doctors, more locations, and more treatment options. Care would still be paid for and managed by VA, but treatment would be provided in a veteran’s own community. Governor Romney proposed this idea last month, and after talking with VSO representatives, I believe it is worth exploring in greater detail.
There are other options as well. We are blessed to live in a country in which our communities serve as a bridge to government and private services. It is to those communities where our veterans return home and often where they first turn for help.
So, if a veteran chooses, for his or her own personal reasons not to use VA, such as was the case for Daniel Hanson, a Marine, who testified last year before the Committee that he didn’t feel comfortable at VA, we need to ask: what is more important, getting a veteran care, or potentially risking a deadly outcome because he or she is not allowed to go outside the system in place? The responsibility of caring for veterans should, and always will, lie with VA, but we should not discount the power of faith-based and community groups to support government efforts.
We also must address the national stigma surrounding mental illness. I believe a mental injury is no different than a physical injury or illness in its impact on a person’s well-being.
Still, the public is bombarded with news and entertainment that perpetuates this stigma. After public shootings, news anchors question whether the shooters were veterans. On TV, we witness the disastrous effects on the career of a young CIA agent struggling with bipolar disorder in the popular television Homeland, a show that just won best television drama at last Sunday’s Emmy Awards.
Millions of Americans struggle with mental injuries, not just veterans, and not every veteran is going to have PTS. And few, of those millions, fit the clinical definition of “insane.” All deserve our respect and support, especially veterans struggling to adapt to the civilian world, many of whom have witnessed more carnage than our minds can conjure.
So, we have a choice.
We can continue to keep trying the same old ideas over and over again, getting the same result and keeping the status quo. Or we can take action and try a new approach, an approach that expands access to care and brings community partnerships into the equation to combat suicide, and hopefully decrease the stigma of mental injuries.
It is incumbent, therefore, on everyone working to help improve mental health care and to break through the stigma, to consider the following when debating this issue: does one answer fit all needs, or can we help veterans get better before it is too late?
For me, it is the latter. There are lives at stake, and every day that passes is another day that has taken the lives of 18 men and women who once wore our country’s cloth with pride.