Expanding Veterans' Mental Health Care


Mar 16 2017

The brave men and women who stand in defense of our nation have experienced the unfortunate realities of combat that most of us only see portrayed in war movies. Many of these heroes who have displayed immense strength and courage often are living with unseen injuries.

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). These invisible battle scars make it difficult to identify veterans and active duty service members living with mental illness. Too often we learn who needs help too late.

According to the VA's 2016 veteran suicide report, an average of 20 veterans commit suicide each day. In my home state of Arkansas, veterans represent about eight percent of the population, but about 20 percent of suicides. Veteran suicide is an epidemic.

Two years ago, Congress passed the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act to deliver help to veterans who live with mental illness. This provided a good foundation for improvement, but VA continues to struggle to meet the needs of our veterans.

Offering access to doctors outside of VA is essential to rural states like Arkansas, but the tremendous shortage of mental health providers in our nation negatively affects veterans and individuals all across the country. Cancelations by a very short supply of doctors continue to make scheduling difficult. These scheduling appointments are much too critical to delay. We must ensure that veterans who ask for help receive it and we must do more to identify at-risk individuals who would benefit from this support.

An investigation by National Public Radio found that since 2009, the Army has separated more than 20,000 veterans diagnosed with mental illness or traumatic brain injury (TBI) for alleged misconduct. This left these men and women without access to critical mental health services because of their other-than-honorable (OTH) discharges.

VA recently announced an expansion of mental health services to the 500,000 who fall into this category. Granting veterans with OTH discharges access to the network of programs and resources that have proven successful is critical to addressing this crisis. I support this initiative and look forward to working with VA Secretary Dr. David Shulkin and my colleagues on the Senate and House Veterans' Affairs Committees to implement a plan that breaks down the barriers preventing access to mental health services for these vulnerable veterans.

Many Veterans Service Organizations (VSOs) identified suicide prevention and awareness as one of their top priorities in recent presentations to Congress. I believe it is vital to collaborate with VSOs to recognize and reach veterans in need. Programs like peer-to-peer support have been successful for VSOs so there is no reason why VA shouldn't be able to achieve the same success with similar initiatives.

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.

This was published on March 16, 2017 on Military.com