Hurting Isn’t a Sign of Weakness
Posted by Christina Roof on September 21
Standing in front of a large crowd at Ft. Bliss on August 31, 2012, President Obama announced a new Executive Order entitled “Improving Access to Mental Health Services for Veterans, Service Members, and Military Families.” The executive order builds on some efforts already underway, such as VA’s plan to hire 1,600 new mental health clinicians and 300 mental health support staff, which Secretary Shinseki announced in June of this year.
Our nation faces a public health crisis when it comes to suicide. While we lack an accurate mechanism to track veteran suicide, VA estimates that 18 veterans a day commit suicide, putting the total veteran suicide since January 1, 2009 at an astonishing 24,174. In addition, from 2009-2011 DoD reported 871 service member suicides, and the Associated Press obtained DoD documents that report 154 active duty suicides in the first 155 days of 2012.
This executive order is a step in the right direction, but we must move swiftly and recruit more partners to change this appalling trend line.
Highlights from the President’s executive order include:
• VA, in collaboration with the Department of Health and Human Services, is directed to expand the capacity of the Veterans Crisis Line by 50 percent to ensure that veterans have timely access to qualified, caring responders who can help address immediate crises.
• VA is mandated to ensure that any veteran identifying him or herself as being in crisis connects with a mental health professional or trained mental health worker within 24 hours.
• VA shall expand the number of mental health professionals who are available to see veterans beyond traditional business hours.
• DoD and VA shall jointly develop and implement a 12-month national suicide prevention campaign focused on connecting veterans and service members to mental health services.
• DoD and Health and Human Services (HHS) are directed to conduct a comprehensive mental health study with an emphasis on PTSD related physical injuries, such as TBI, to develop better prevention, diagnosis, and treatment options.
• DoD is directed to review all of its existing mental health and substance abuse prevention, education, and outreach programs. The Defense Health Program is also directed to identify the key program areas that produce successful outcomes, and then rank programs within each of these program areas using metrics that assess their effectiveness. Existing program resources shall be then realigned to ensure only successful programs are being used by DoD and less effective programs are replaced.
• The Secretary of VA shall hire and train 800 peer-to-peer counselors.
• DoD, VA, HHS and the Department of Education, in coordination with the Office of Science and Technology Policy, shall establish a National Research Action Plan to study the effects of PTSD and related mental health conditions.
• The immediate establishment of an Interagency Task Force on Military and Veterans Mental Health (Task Force), to be co-chaired by the Secretaries of DoD, VA and HHS. This task force shall review relevant laws, policies and programs in order to identify what changes need to be made and what take actions need to be taken to improve the services and programs are available to our veterans and military communities. Not later than 180 days after the date of this order, the Task Force shall submit recommendations to the President on strategies to improve mental health and substance abuse treatment services for veterans, service members, and their families.
The VA must be ready and equipped with the proper financial resources to address the huge influx of veterans needing care in the coming years. Yet increasing the VA budget is nowhere near a sure-fire solution. According to VA, over $5.7 billion was obligated for mental health services in FY 2011, not including services provided by Vet Centers or primary care clinics. The President’s budget for FY 2012 requests $6.15 billion, but despite this budget increase, VA continues to struggle to meet demand and provide timely mental health services for many veterans. We need dramatic system reform to make lasting improvements in quality of care – from care models to policies and personnel. We also need to attract and train more mental health professionals to meet the VA’s hiring demand, and jumpstart intensive research to support effective treatment methods and track progress.
Leadership from the Administration and Congress is critical to winning this battle against suicide, however the burden is not on Washington alone. It is time that we as a nation step up, come together, and take real action at the community level.
Caring for the men and women who defend freedom is a solemn responsibility that belongs to every citizen. IAVA is committed to galvanizing support in every sector around suicide prevention. The men and women who serve us deserve to know that we have their backs.
IAVA has partnered with the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to bring resources to events and to provide IAVA's membership with direct and immediate access to mental health professionals. Add the Veterans Crisis Line number to your phone, it only takes a second - 1-800-273-8255 press 1 for veterans. or text "838255" for support. If you're a veteran, join our discussion at Community of Veterans (COV) to learn more about the partnership and the warning signs of suicide.
Christina Roof is IAVA's Legislative Associate
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