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Nearly 350,000 New Vets Seek Mental Health Care

By Courtney Reyers, NAMI Publications Manager

An early October report released by Veterans for Common Sense (VCS) provided staggering statistics about U.S. military service men and women returning from war in Iraq and Afghanistan.

VCS’s report, which compiles data from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and Department of Defense , paints a grim picture of how deep the need for mental health services and supports is for these service men and women.

The number of service members returning from war, out of the military and seeking treatment from the VA is 711,986, with roughly 10,000 new claims each month. Upon returning home, 367,749 soldiers were treated for a mental health condition. Of the more than 200,000 veterans who filed claims for the onset of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), only one-half of them were treated. Since January 2001, our country has lost nearly 5,000 soldiers to suicide.

The September issue of the NAMI Advocate featured an interview with Col. Rebecca Porter, Chief of the Behavioral Health Division, Office of the Surgeon General, who addressed the military’s current stance on such needs—a stance that has changed drastically over the last decade.

“Given the unique military culture and how we encourage soldiers to be reliant and courageous, I think that sometimes that gets translated into an unwillingness to seek help. We are working with soldiers and their family members to reach out, get help and recognize that asking for assistance is actually a sign of strength,” Col. Porter said.

A cultural shift is taking place across all military branches, with military leaders such as Col. Porter and Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli, Vice Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army and recipient of the Hero of Medicine Award for his efforts to help soldiers with traumatic brain injury (TBI) and PTSD, spear-heading efforts. Ensuring that the military environment is one where mental health needs are taken serious is a top priority.

“Efforts aimed at increasing individuals’ resiliency, while reducing incidence of at-risk and high-risk behavior across the force, are having a positive impact,” Gen. Chiarelli said. “We absolutely recognize there is much work to be done and remain committed to ensuring our people are cared for and have ready access to the best possible programs and services.”

“We talk more openly about behavioral health and we encourage soldiers and their families to get help,” Porter added. “We also make care more accessible to them. We are training our primary care providers how to recognize behavioral health concerns. We also can appropriately refer people in need to behavioral health specialists.”

As the climate changes in military culture, we need to recognize that current mental health supports and services in place cannot sustain the sheer number of returning veterans and soldiers from war. PTSD, TBI and other mental health conditions don’t just affect the service men and women who live with them—family members and loved ones are affected as well. Support for family members is also critical.

NAMI’s Family-to-Family education program partnered with the VA in 2010 to start providing family support at its VA locations across the country. The classes address unique issues such as being a family member of a veteran and discussions about life in military service along with common issues and questions.

“The more families can understand about coping with mental illness, the greater the likelihood that they will be able to provide support and even be a resource to helping their family members use mental health services,” said Dr. Deborah Vick, a VA psychologist in Hampton, Va., where Family-to-Family classes are offered.

Unified efforts to support our veterans who live with mental illness and their families do make a difference. As we celebrate Veteran’s Day this year, remember that it is important to help those who need it and educate our communities around these issues. For more information, resources and tools for veterans and families, visit the NAMI Veterans Resource Center.

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