Improve mental health care for our veterans

05/23/2014 3:58 PM

06/03/2014 10:17 AM

Nearly two years ago, I used these words in The Kansas City Star: “As a nation, we must learn how best to care for the mentally ill in the hope that we may help to prevent tragedies.”

We were reminded of this last month when an Iraq war veteran who was being evaluated for depression, anxiety and sleep disturbances turned to deadly violence at Fort Hood, Texas. This was an unsettling loss for all Americans — especially for those who are willing to serve and for their families. Soon after, Commanding General Mark Milley told reporters that 34-year-old Spc. Ivan Lopez had a medical history indicating an “unstable psychiatric or psychological condition.”

More recently, serious allegations have come to light in Missouri regarding mental health care delays and inefficiencies at the St. Louis Veterans Affairs (VA) hospital. If these claims are true, this demonstrates an unacceptable lack of leadership in the VA that is putting the health and safety of our veterans at risk. I’ve joined Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill in a letter to Secretary Eric Shinseki requesting information on the hospital’s mental health staff, the number of patients seen per day and the average wait time for veterans’ treatment.

Both of these incidents shed light on a topic that deserves more attention — behavioral health treatment for America’s soldiers, veterans and their families. Too often, our heroes suffer in silence from depression linked to multiple deployments, or anxiety while searching for a job during their transition into civilian life.

According to a recent report released by the Pentagon, the nation’s suicide rate for full-time troops peaked in 2012. And the VA reports that 800 veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan war era are diagnosed with depression each week, while 1,000 veterans are diagnosed with what is defined as “post-traumatic stress disorder” (PTSD). I believe our country should drop the “D” in PTSD to reduce the perceived stigma attached to this very real condition.

We also must take a hard look at the way we spend federal funds to treat behavioral health challenges for all Americans. Next week, I plan to tour mental health facilities across Missouri to learn more about how we can help people nationwide. I’m also meeting with military leaders in Washington, D.C. and sending oversight letters to learn more about the current system.

Congress has taken steps to address these challenges, but more should be done. In March 2014, Congress passed the bipartisan “Excellence in Mental Health Act,” which I introduced with Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow to address the nation’s fragmented mental health system. I also introduced the bipartisan “Caring for America’s Heroes Act” to help bring mental health treatment in line with the way physical injuries are treated for military dependents and retirees under TRICARE.

As a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, I’m working with my colleagues to pass several mental health oversight provisions as part of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). I believe the Department of Defense must take a hard look at the way it addresses the treatment of mental health of service members and their family members. And I believe we can help reduce the stigma surrounding behavioral health challenges by ensuring the Department of Defense provides TRICARE beneficiaries with access to better behavioral health care.

As we honor America’s fallen heroes on Memorial Day, we remember the incredible sacrifices that all of our servicemen and women — as well as their families — make every day to protect our country. Whether they’re struggling with a physical illness or seeking help for a mental health challenge, America’s brave members of the Armed Forces, veterans and their loved ones deserve the very best care available.

Roy Blunt, a Republican U.S. senator from Springfield, Mo., is vice chairman of the Senate Republican Conference and a member of the Armed Services and Defense Appropriations committees.

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