The United States has been involved in multiple larger scale armed conflicts in our lifetimes. Outside of some of the biggest conflicts, there are hundreds of military operations taking place on an annual basis. As a result of this, hundreds of thousands of men and women have valiantly served in American military units and returned home as veterans.
Many of us are aware of some of the traumas our veterans faced while in service, but few of us truly understand them. Veterans are far more likely to return home with mental health conditions resulting from their experiences abroad such as PTSD, anxiety, insomnia, and depression. If left untreated, few veterans can successfully overcome their conditions.
Unfortunately, mental health resources are not readily available at the majority of Veterans Administration (VA) hospitals. This dearth of resources results from a variety of issues including a lack of prioritization and trained professionals. Addressing this concern can provide extensive benefits both to veterans and their families.
The VA operates one of the largest healthcare systems in the country, with over 172 centers and 1,069 outpatient clinics nationwide. Though the majority of veterans live within 30 minutes of a clinic, there is considerable variation in wait times for care across facilities. Research suggests that although the VA can expand mental health care, the response to need and actual expansion has been slow.
Part of this is due to a nationwide shortage of mental health treatment professionals. One recent study estimated that nearly 37% of Americans — not just veterans — were living in areas experiencing mental health professional shortages. The COVID-19 pandemic has undoubtedly exasperated this crisis, as many people have been put into difficult and isolating situations over the past two years.
These twin problems — slow expansion of mental health services amongst VA clinics and a mental health provider shortage — outline a dire problem for our veterans in need. Nearly 1 in 5 veterans return from abroad with mental health conditions in need of treatment. Research suggests that even if treatment is available to these individuals, many are not aware of the services and benefits they are entitled to.
Of course, all of these provider issues have potentially significant impacts on veterans and their families. A lack of access to mental health services is a profound contributor to higher than average suicide rates amongst returning veterans. With many veterans now returned from conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, this issue is more pertinent than ever before and resources are in even higher demand.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is perhaps the most common mental health condition that military personnel return home with. Any traumatic event that puts an individual in a situation where they are threatened with serious injury, sexual violence, or death is the main cause of PTSD. Left untreated, veterans suffering from PTSD can be triggered into a fight or flight response by non-threatening events that bring on flashbacks of traumas, become easily angered or aggressive, or become withdrawn and isolated.
Symptoms are most often noticed and reported by family members first. Unfortunately, without easily available treatment, many veterans may be reluctant to get the medical attention they need. Instead, many veterans may cope by turning to substance abuse, whether that be through alcohol or other illegal substances. Those becoming withdrawn and isolating themselves are more likely to develop and act upon suicidal thoughts. Fortunately, there are resources to help with substance abuse and crisis counselors available if you are having thoughts of suicide.
Increasing access to mental health resources is a critical aspect of helping address this issue. Today, the VA is making strides toward increasing the availability of immediate resources. Programs such as a national crisis hotline for veterans have been established. Likewise, online telehealth treatment and peer assistance programs are becoming more widely available.
Programs that help veterans better understand the benefits they are entitled to are also emerging. These can help veterans develop a knowledge of what services are covered with their VA benefits and encourage them to take advantage of them. Additionally, these programs can help with answers to questions about coverages such as VA and Medicare benefits to make sure veterans get affordable access to everything they need.
Finally, as providers do become available, it is important for veterans to feel as though they have options. Some PTSD counselors are going to work well for some people and not for others. The ability to shop around and find the right counselor for each person is critical to building trust in the system and increasing success rates over time.
Military personnel face a vast number of challenges both during and after service. Mental health resources are not as readily available as we’d all like them to be for several reasons. Increasing the availability and variety of mental health resources, building an understanding of benefits amongst veterans, and helping find the right treatment are important steps in addressing the issue.