Weekly Columns

This is the second in a series of columns on efforts to help veterans struggling with mental health issues. The first entry on veteran suicides can be found here.

According to the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), as many as 20 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). 

PTSD is a mental health problem that can develop after individuals experience or witness a life-threatening event. This understandably affects a large number of combat veterans.     

While it is certainly not out of the ordinary for anyone to have stress reactions after a traumatic event, PTSD is much different. Upsetting memories, sleep issues and extreme nervousness and anxiety are symptoms that often worsen over time.

Veterans and active duty service members living with the invisible battle scars of PTSD are hard to identify. The perceived stigma associated with seeking help only adds to the challenge. Too often, we find out who needed help too late.

Congress passed the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act in 2015 to change this trend. Since then, the VA has been hard at work implementing the programs authorized by this landmark law, but it still struggles to meet the needs of our veterans—especially those in less populated areas. 

Offering access to doctors outside of the VA is essential to rural states like Arkansas, but the tremendous shortage of mental health providers in our nation is a serious problem for veterans and individuals all across the country. In an effort to bridge the gap in care in areas that lack providers, the VA is turning to technology.

As part of a suite of mobile apps to support veterans and their families, the VA launched the “PTSD Coach” app as a joint project with the Department of Defense (DoD). The app is a tool for self-management of PTSD and includes a self-assessment and educational tools; relaxation and focusing exercises; and immediate access to crisis resources, personal support contacts and professional mental health care.

The VA has also recently launched a pilot telehealth program that will give rural veterans with PTSD remote access to therapy and related services. The therapy is delivered via interactive video from a VA medical center to a community-based outpatient clinic (CBOC) or the veteran’s home. The Little Rock CBOC is one of 12 locations selected to participate in the program.

Congress is working to reach more veterans in need as well. The National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2018, which was signed into law late last year, included provisions that ensure at-risk veterans can access critical mental health care that had previously been unavailable to them. 

Washington will not be able to solve this problem alone. Thanks to the efforts of veterans’ service organizations and committed advocates, we have made strides to remove the stigma of PTSD and reach veterans in need of help.

One organization doing great work in this area is Rivers of Recovery. I’ve seen firsthand how the program empowers our veterans to change their lives. Using outdoor therapy as an innovative alternative to medicine, Rivers of Recovery helps our veterans heal and take control of their lives through empowerment, fraternity and an appreciation for the outdoors—a combination that has already changed the lives of so many veterans.

These methods should be the focus of treatment plans for more veterans suffering from PTSD. Our veterans should never face an uphill battle when seeking access to mental health care. We have a responsibility to provide care that supports the needs of those who have served in the defense of our nation, and I will continue to advocate for programs that achieve this goal.