The Importance of Increasing Access to Mental Health Resources for Veterans

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The United States involves itself in multiple large-scale armed conflicts. Outside of some of the most significant conflicts, there are hundreds of military operations taking place on an annual basis. As a result, 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 our veterans’ traumas while in service, but few 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, most Veterans Administration (VA) hospitals are not readily available with mental health resources. This dearth of resources results from various issues, including a lack of prioritization and trained professionals. Addressing this concern can provide extensive benefits both to veterans and their families.

A Growing Provider Problem

The VA operates one of the largest healthcare systems in the country, with over 172 centers and 1,069 outpatient clinics nationwide. Though most 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.

This is partly 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 in complex 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 from abroad with mental health conditions require 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

Consequences

Of course, these provider issues potentially impact veterans and their families. A lack of access to mental health services profoundly contributes to higher than average suicide rates amongst returning veterans. With many veterans returning from Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts, this issue is more pertinent than ever, 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 leading 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. 

Family members notice symptoms first. Unfortunately, many veterans may be reluctant to get the medical attention they need without readily available treatment. 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

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. Veterans have access to programs like the national crisis hotline. Likewise, online telehealth treatment and peer assistance programs are becoming more widely available.

Programs emerge to help veterans better understand their benefits. They 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 answer questions about coverages such as VA and Medicare benefits to ensure veterans get affordable access to everything they need.

Programs like mindfulness offer relief to PTSD:

But engaging in active combat, witnessing war-torn environments, or being held prisoner of war is among the most intense experiences of a veteran’s life. So it’s not surprising that, upon returning to civilian life, veterans face a wide variety of mental health challenges. These challenges may include post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, and substance abuse are common.

Mindfulness meditation and mindfulness-based therapies can offer veterans powerful support for healing war’s mental and emotional wounds. Therefore they can more comfortably integrate back into their civilian lives.

https://solaramentalhealth.com/mindfulness-for-veterans/

Finally, as providers become available, it is essential for veterans to feel as though they have options. Some PTSD counselors will work well for some people and not 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.

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Military personnel faces 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 proper treatment are essential steps in addressing the issue.

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