War Vets Say That Mental Health Issues Are Their Top Concern

Army veteran Michael Blazer from Lebanon, Tenn. joins others to place 1,892 flags representing veteran and service members who have died by suicide on the National Mall in Washington,D.C.. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/CHARLES DHARAPAK
Army veteran Michael Blazer from Lebanon, Tenn. joins others to place 1,892 flags representing veteran and service members who have died by suicide on the National Mall in Washington,D.C.. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/CHARLES DHARAPAK

Iraqi and Afghan war veterans still struggle with mental health issues, according to a report released this week, prompting calls to lawmakers to improve the quality and access of care for veterans at a time when nearly 23,000 soldiers are expected to return from Afghanistan this year.

A survey conducted by the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) found that depression and recurrent thoughts of suicide counted among post-9/11 veterans’ most pressing concerns. IAVA released the findings in a 24-page report months after initial reports about mismanagement at Veterans’ hospitals surfaced.

“In many ways, I think this should be a wake-up call for all Americans,” IAVA Chief Executive Paul Rieckhoff told the Arizona Republic on Thursday. “The survey indicates that suicide and mental-health matters among the newest generation of vets should be top-line issues for President Barack Obama, VA secretary nominee Robert McDonald and federal lawmakers.”

In a nationwide survey of 2,098 IAVA members — which includes members of the Army, Marines, Air Force, and Navy — more than 60 percent of respondents said they have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder or traumatic brain injuries. More than 30 percent of respondents said they have thought about taking their own lives since joining the military. In addition, nearly half of those surveyed said they knew at least one person who has committed suicide.

Respondents also didn’t view lawmakers favorably. Nearly 70 percent of IAVA members surveyed said they think that Congress has not done a good job of improving vets’ lives, while 54 percent rated the president poorly. This sentiment among veterans highlights the Veterans Health Administration (VHA)’s struggle to meet the demands of an increasing caseload that includes traumatic brain injuries, limb amputations, post-traumatic stress disorder, and diabetes.

The VA has been plagued with issues of access to care since President George W. Bush occupied the Oval Office, and has recently made national headlines after a CNN investigation found the VA tried to cover up delays of treatment that may have resulted in deaths. A 2013 report by the Office of the Inspector General of Veterans Affairs also cited a shortage in psychiatrists and a backlog of Medicaid reimbursements as key factors in the the VA’s service gap.

Although lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have expressed a commitment to closing the service gap in veteran mental health care, many still grapple with what they consider to be the enormous cost of achieving such a feat. The Obama administration said it would cost nearly $17.6 million to hire thousands of health professionals, lease new facilities and upgrade its computers to reduce a backlog of veterans awaiting care at VA hospitals and clinics.

The party lines also appear to be clearly divided on the subject. Senate Republicans blocked Sen. Bernie Sanders’ (I-Vermont) veteran health and benefits bill in February. On Thursday, Sanders announced a $25 billion proposal that would allow veterans to seek private doctors in place of VA hospitals and clinics if they found the waits too long. Shortly after he presented his proposal, Rep. Jeff Miller (R-FL) countered with a plan that would require $10 billion in emergency spending.

At this point, it’s unclear if a finalized veterans benefits’ bill will pass through both houses before Congress breaks for recess next month. But many veterans, including Rieckhoff, said that they cannot wait much longer while Congress acts slowly to improve the services that better the lives of veterans and their families.

“Aside from fixing its own mess on military retirement benefits, Congress has done nothing. Absolutely nothing,” Rieckhoff wrote in a CNN opinion piece in March. “Veterans have taken notice. And we’re not going to sit by idly as Congress fails to act on our priorities and, worse, attacks the benefits we’ve earned.”

When it comes to gaps in mental health services, veterans aren’t the only ones affected. More than 91 million Americans live in areas where few, if any, of these medical resources exist. According to the Association of American Medical Colleges, 57 percent of practicing psychiatrists, many of whom are approaching retirement age, often take on cases for more well-to-do patients. A conference the National Institute of Mental Health hosted in 2013 also highlighted racial and geographic disparities in patient engagement and treatment that discourage the poor and people of color from seeking professional help.