Mental Health Injuries in the Military
Mental health injuries not only affects how we feel, but also how we act. As we grow to understand mental health, we continue to see its effects on every aspect of life: emotional, physical, and social. Those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other mental health injuries often struggle in their social surroundings; including difficulty sleeping and paying attention, aggressive behavior, difficulty concentrating, and frustrating easily. Couple mental health injuries with the strict rigor and demanding culture of military service, and you often have a recipe for disaster.
A recent study released by the Government Affairs Office showed that 62 percent of service members discharged for misconduct in 2011 through 2015 had a mental health diagnosis. Of those discharged, almost a quarter were discharged under other than honorable (OTH) conditions. There’s no way to know how many of these received an OTH in part because of the mental health injury, but IAVA and other in the VSO community are concerned that it might be a large number. While all veterans are able to have their discharge status reviewed and possibly changed by the Department of Defense (DoD), there are guidelines and policies in place that often make a discharge status review lengthy and difficult.
Other Than Honorable Discharges
OTH discharges can limit a veteran’s ability to access education benefits, employment benefits, and health care through the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). Veterans with OTH discharges face a higher risk of homelessness and suicide, yet because of their discharge status, they are shut out from the care and community providers they need. While the system is changing, as VA opened its doors to veterans with OTH discharges in need of urgent mental health care in July, veterans with OTH discharges continue to face an uphill battle in receiving benefits.
For the past few years, as national awareness of PTSD and other combat-related mental health injuries grew, interest in OTH discharges and their connection to mental health injuries has gained traction. In 2014, then-Secretary Chuck Hagel updated the Department of Defense’s discharge review policy to reflect our growing knowledge of mental health injuries and its effects. If the veteran could show that their discharge was related to PTSD resulting from military service, DoD was expected to grant them “liberal consideration,” basically giving the veteran the benefit of the doubt.
This review process meant that veterans who suffered from PTSD while in service and were discharged under OTH conditions may have their discharge status changed to general or honorable. With that change would come access to VA benefits, education benefits, community benefits and more.
A Change in Policy
The downfall of the 2014 policy was that it only identified PTSD as a mental health injury that granted liberal consideration. This meant that there was confusion and discrepancy throughout DoD on how they were handling other mental health injuries, from traumatic brain injury to sexual assault to other mental health injuries.
Last week, DoD clarified the policy, extending liberal consideration to veterans with service-connected mental health injuries beyond just PTSD and to victims of military sexual trauma.
While the policy clarification provided by DoD is certainly a step in the right direction, there are still hurdles ahead. The review process takes about a year on average and the burden of evidence and responsibility to begin the process remains on the veteran. IAVA will continue to push DoD and the Department of Veterans Affairs to continue to improve the review process and services available to OTH discharged veterans.
Let’s end where we began: mental health. So often OTH discharges are a result of mental health injuries. If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health, help is available. September is Suicide Prevention Month and the Department of Veterans Affairs wants to #BeThere. Find additional resources on how to access support or be an ally here.
Our RRRP veteran transition managers are here to assist you; contact them today.
Next week, check back on our blog to for more information on the changing discharge review process and what it may mean for you. IAVA stands with you, today and every day.