Meeting the Needs of America’s Veterans
This document focuses on the escalating problem of suicide for those who have served in the military. It identifies risk factors for suicide and provides recommendations for intervention and treatment for those at risk.
This project focuses on the quality of care available to U.S. soldiers returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Center is conducting this study to assess our nation’s readiness to address the healthcare needs of the 1.6 million American veterans returning from these wars, and then to inform the public about medical and related social problems facing veterans and possible solutions to those impending problems.
Nearly one soldier in five, or about 300,000 of the 1.6 million soldiers who have served in Iraq or Afghanistan, has post-traumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”) or major depression.
What is PTSD? It often occurs after experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event that leaves an individual with feelings of helplessness, such as an accident, assault, natural disaster, or combat. The symptoms of PTSD may include persisting pattern of anxiety, fearfulness, depression, withdrawal, feelings of guilt, insomnia, difficulty concentrating, irritability, outbursts of anger, and behavior changes (from “Understanding PTSD” at ptsd.va.gov). Left untreated or undertreated, the consequences could be drug use or alcohol abuse, marital problems, unemployment, violence, and suicide.
A much higher percentage of returning soldiers are experiencing PTSD than from any previous military operation because of the several tours of duty and types of combat and injuries experienced.
The cost to the United States of mental health injuries alone could rise to $6.2 billion for only the first two years of care following deployment, due to lost productivity and lost lives through suicide, according to an April 2008 RAND report. The RAND report was the first large-scale, nongovernmental assessment of American soldiers’ mental health needs and has triggered an awareness of the urgent need for more study and planning in this area.
Our returning soldiers are just beginning to experience to wide gap between their healthcare needs and the ability of our system to address those needs. For instance, the advocacy group, Veterans for America, recently reported that the mental healthcare system in Fort Drum (NY) was unprepared for the return of more than 3,500 soldiers from Iraq late last year. What do our returning soldiers experience after serving several tours of duty? –prolonged administrative delays in processing PTSD claims and an extensive breakdown of healthcare treatment. In fact, the first class action lawsuit filed by veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan is against the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (“DVA”) to demand adequate mental healthcare treatment (Veterans For Common Sense et al. v. Peake, Case No. C 07 3758, U.S.D.C. (N.D. Cal. 2007).
Compounding the problem of Veterans’ healthcare needs is the continuing stigma of mental illness within the military community. While recent efforts have been made to increase screening of mental health for returning veterans, it is generally understood that mental illness is underreported in the military. Many soldiers reveal that they do not report mental illnesses out of fear that such an identification will harm their military careers.
Our veterans’ healthcare system needs further assessment and exploration of practical solutions to reduce the mental healthcare deficit. According to the April 2008 RAND study investing in higher-quality mental health treatment could save $2 billion within two years.
The Center’s research team will conduct a survey of the Veterans’ Administration (the “VA”) health care system, in order to answer several questions, including:
- To what degree is the VA system prepared or unprepared to render the necessary social services for the returning handicapped veterans, and to provide proper rehabilitation in general?
- Are there enough trained physicians, either inside or outside the VA system, to handle the unique new types of injuries sustained by returning veterans, including closed-skull brain trauma and other neuropsychological trauma — injuries that the average physician has not been trained to deal with?
- Will it be necessary or beneficial to turn to sources outside the VA system to provide treatment to injured veterans, and, if so, what sources are ready and available?
A research team of experts on veterans’ healthcare needs and Center officers will outline their findings on impending veterans’ healthcare needs through an extensive public outreach campaign and will write articles, press releases, papers, and reports and conduct interviews with various media outlets.
This project is still in early development. Comments and suggestions are welcome.