Veterans require better access to mental health care

by Heidi Krick – Asst. Campus Voice Editor – hkrick@unca.edu

A devastating percentage increase in U.S. military suicides shows American soldiers need more emotional and financial support during their time overseas and at home.

U.S. military service men and women place their lives in the line of fire each day during their often multiple tours overseas, yet the unfortunate truth reveals American veterans also face unprecedented social and emotional challenges once they return to the States.  Americans must demand veterans’ lives remain protected even after returning home through mandated therapy for adjusting veterans.

The Pentagon began closely tracking military suicide deaths in 2001.  According to data recently released from the Pentagon, 349 military personnel committed suicide in 2012, up from 301 suicides in 2011.  Last year’s military suicide deaths surpass Afghanistan combat deaths by 54.  Americans must not accept a U.S. military system witnessing more troop members’ self-inflicted deaths than deaths occurring in the field.

The previous record of military suicides was 310 in 2006, according to the Pentagon’s data.  Last year’s data includes a 50 percent increase to 48 deaths of Marine Corps members.  The Corps’ worst year was 2009, with 52 suicides.  The U.S. Army showed the most service member suicides with 182.  Air Force suicides are up 16 percent from 2011, with 59 suicides.  U.S. Navy member suicides increased 15 percent with 60 deaths.

Military suicide rates continue to rise, although according to the Pentagon’s information, these statistics remain below the civilian population’s suicide rates.  Twenty-five per 100,000 males aged 17-60 committed suicide in 2010, the most recent year statistics are available.  U.S. military suicide rates in 2012 were 17.5 deaths per 100,000.  Although the number of military suicides falls short of the national average, there is no comfort found in the continuous increase in self-inflicted deaths of our national heroes.

Wars of previous eras were a national event.  Today, Americans are made aware of the events and tragedies occurring overseas via a scrolling ticker at the bottom of national news channels.  Americans need to take an active part in overseas battles, which can be easily achieved through volunteerism.

There must be an outpouring of financial and emotional support from both the government and the general population for American soldiers who return home from combat.  Service members deal with an incredible amount of challenges and changes during their adjustment at home, and veterans need reassurance that the transition will be as smooth as possible. Counseling, organizing and volunteering at veteran outreach programs or by simply donating to organizations aiding the return home can provide a smoother transition to veterans.

The Office of Veterans Affairs reported an increase of 33 percent during the last five years of former service members seeking help for mental and emotional disorders.  Veterans seeking help from the VA are supposed to receive an evaluation within 24 hours and necessary treatment within two weeks.

Unfortunately, according to a report by the agency’s inspector general, nearly 100,000 soldiers seeking treatment waited much longer.  The VA is an integral part of veteran readjustment to civilian life, yet the program is undoubtedly strained for resources.  The VA hired more than 2,000 mental health staff in April to increase veteran support, and they still need an even greater number of qualified therapists to keep soldiers from waiting for the help they desperately need.  Mental health providers can alleviate the strain on the VA by volunteering just two hours a week to counsel struggling veterans.

The most common factors contributing to veteran suicides include difficulty adjusting to civilian life and recovery from mental and physical injuries.  Mandated group and individual therapy sessions, as well as mandated meetings with veteran support groups connecting transitioning soldiers to one another, would allow an opportunity for soldiers to explain, discover and work through the issues faced during their adjustment.

Soldiers are trained to adapt and overcome challenges during war, and once they return home, it must be difficult to have to reach out for the emotional support needed for a healthy transition.  According to information released in July by the Institute of Medicine, an estimated 17 percent of the 2.6 million service members suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and less than half of those suffering sought treatment.  Mandated therapy would offer help to adjusting soldiers, even if they are unaware or unwilling to show they are in need of support.

Each year, the Pentagon performs an in-depth evaluation of the circumstances involving veteran suicides.

The most recent year which this data is available is 2011.  According to the information, 74 percent of those who took their lives did not tell anyone they were capable of harming themselves, and 55 percent did not have a known behavioral disorder.

Mandated therapy following time in battle would allow counselors to discover and determine those who are in need of help.  The VA is hugely beneficial to soldiers seeking help, but with the strain on the VA’s resources, soldiers are slipping through the cracks.  Local counselors, therapists and psychiatrists should offer their services to returning veterans either free of charge or drastically discounted, as a way to offer their support and encourage reaching for help.

Adjusting to civilian life is much more difficult when trying to overcome the changes alone and without the support of those to whom veterans can relate. Suicide rates for unmarried service members were 55 percent higher than for those married.

Mandating support groups and therapy sessions would alleviate the pressures soldiers face by connecting veterans and offering a place to discuss the problems each veteran faces.  Requiring therapy and support groups for veterans would lessen the chance for a struggling soldier to feel that he or she is alone.

UNC Asheville has unique programs offering connection and support services for student veterans.  To learn more about these services visit http://transition.unca.edu/veterans-programs-and-services.

 

 

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