Veterans Are Only Part of the Challenge

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MUNIR UZ ZAMAN / AFP / Getty Images

An officer from 3rd Platoon, Bulldog Troop, 1st Squadron, 91st U.S. Cavalry Regiment, 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team watches during a patrol in the area of Ahmadzi village in Muhammad Agah, Logar Province, Afghanistan, on Oct. 6, 2012.

Our active-duty military is in the midst of a mental-health crisis: the suicide numbers are climbing and the volume of psychotropic medications prescribed is multiplying.

While both President Obama and Mitt Romney have plans to improve the overall military mental health system, they seem to focus too much on veterans (who do need the help), but with scant attention paid the active-duty force.

My question to both is simple: with nearly a troop-a-day dying at his or her own hand, what are your plans to stop this epidemic?

Too often, the government’s strategy is to throw more money at vexing problems. The Pentagon recently announced that it is funneling $100 million to better understand the roots of, and potential fixes for, post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury that are signature wounds of the post-9/11 wars.

This is hardly a new investment: the Defense Department has spent more than $700 million on some 500 studies into TBI alone since 2007. It’s been my experience in the field of military mental health that the federal government can’t spend such large sums smartly, so they hire more “for-profit” contractors…and the cycle repeats itself again and again.

Obama’s August announcement on “Improving Access to Mental Health Services for Veterans, Service Members, and Military Families” focuses largely on the VA – helping the folks who have fought our wars – and not on the active-duty and reserve forces who are fighting our wars.

Likewise, Romney has yet to detail how he would tend to the mental ailments now afflicting our active-duty troops. In a recent speech to the American Legion, he said that he would improve veterans’ access to health care by hiring more mental-health professionals and letting veterans see Tricare military-healthcare providers. It’s a good idea, and I’m happy that he wants to focus on straightening out the VA, but has he forgotten about those still serving?

It’s trite, but true: an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

“Long deployments and intense combat conditions require optimal support for the emotional and mental health needs of our service members and their families,” Obama has noted. The Rand Corp. has said that about one in five troops deployed to Afghanistan or Iraq suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder or depression. With thousands of our warriors heading home over the coming months, shouldn’t we place efforts on helping them before they become vets and get dumped into the already overwhelmed VA?

We need to take charge immediately and dictate mandatory, ongoing proactive counseling for active-duty troops. I wrote and implemented such a program at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot (aka boot camp) in San Diego. We routinely put drill instructors through individual and group counseling. We helped these Marines understand how they might react to strss (excessive drinking, social withdrawal, anger outbursts, etc). Once their patterns were recognized, we developed targeted coping strategies.

Such a preventative approach works because – since everyone has to do it – there is no stigma associated with asking for help (Think of it as Don’t Ask, Do Tell).

Contrast our Band-Aid approach to mental ills with the way we now deal with physical health. Routine screenings, including mammograms, pap smears and colonoscopies, let us detect cancer at early stages, typically before any symptoms have been detected. The early discovery doesn’t prevent the cancer, but it allows early action, which dramatically increases changes of survival and quality of life.

It’s about time we adopted such an approach for our men and women still in uniform.

Marjorie Morrison is a San Diego psychologist and author of the just-published book, The Inside Battle: Our Military Mental Health Crisis.