National Alliance on Mental Illness
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Veterans: A Critical Concern

June 25, 2007

More Vietnam veterans have died from suicide since the war ended than the approximately 55,000 soldiers who were killed directly during the conflict in the 1960s and 1970s.

Loud gasps were heard from the audience when U.S. Representative Bob Filner, chairman of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, offered this statistic while speaking before the annual convention of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) in San Diego. Congressman Filner spoke during the last day of the convention, June 23.

Filner called mental health professions, schools, churches, employers, and other community leaders to provide support to returning service men and women, and encourage them to start with education about mental illnesses.

His remarks come at a time when strong concerns have been voiced about the Pentagon’s mental health care system and policies as well as VA treatment.

Immediately before Filner’s remarks, the Hartford Courant of Connecticut received NAMI’s Outstanding Media Award for investigative reporting for a series of stories last year which revealed that soldiers with post-traumatic stress disorder were being sent to the front lines in Iraq while taking medication for this illness but without receiving counseling or monitoring as part of their overall treatment. The series sparked Congressional hearings and was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize earlier this year.

During a convention session on mental healthcare reform within the VA system, Thomas Horvath, M.D., chief of staff for the VA Medical Center in Houston, Texas, and a professor of psychiatry at Baylor College of Medicine, identified a “balanced scorecard” for reform that included the following:

  • Access to care
  • Quality of clinical care
  • Veteran satisfaction
  • Function and quality of life
  • Community relations
  • Employee growth and satisfaction

What is missing is recovery, he noted. There is no specific definition.

Measurements also are not always connected. For example, the quality of specific care may be high, but satisfaction low.

Describing reforms that have occurred in recent years, John Bradley, a consultant to NAMI’s National Veterans Council, said, “The system is really exhausted right now,” with turnovers in leadership reflecting almost a “panic.”

Horvath estimated that only about 15 percent of medical professionals in the VA system are committed to reform and providing leadership for it. About 50 percent are going it alone but not providing leadership. The remainder are either reluctant to reform or “dead-set against it.”