Veterans Need Better Access to Mental Health Services

November 11, 2014

The Affordable Care Act has increased healthcare insurance coverage by more than 25% and is projected to cover more than 30 million people by 2017. However, it will also exacerbate the existing barriers to mental health treatment and quality of care problems. This shortage will be felt most deeply by an already overextended system providing mental health care to veterans.

Every hour and fifteen minutes, an American veteran commits suicide. According to the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 349 active-duty soldiers committed suicide in 2012, while 295 died as a result of combat in the same year. The fact that more US soldiers died from suicide than combat illustrates the immediate need to improve access to mental health care for veterans. Nearly one million active service members have been diagnosed with at least one mental health disorder since 2000; nearly half of those have been diagnosed with two or more.

Unfortunately, 16% of the appointments at the VA hospital were scheduled more than 60 days from the patient’s desired appointment date. This means that a veteran in mental health crisis may not even be able to be seen for an initial mental health screening for two months after his or her preferred appointment date. It is too easy to get lost in this system, and it’s far too common for mentally ill individuals to fall through the cracks

In a study of Iraq war veterans, only 42% of those referred for mental health treatment received follow-up care. (Milliken et. al, 2007) Research on barriers to mental health care for veterans attributes the resistance to seeking care to stigma.

  • In one study, 61% of soldiers agreed with the statement that admitting a mental health disorder would harm their career. (Britt, 2000)
  • Another study showed that one in three service members were concerned about stigma associated with seeking mental health treatment. (Hoge, et al., 2004)
  • One study of Iraq veterans found that 70% had a concern about being labeled as having a mental health disorder. (Stecker)
  • Commanding officers have access to mental health records and can determine a soldier “unfit” to serve based on those records.
  • A large portion of veterans with mental illnesses reported that they did not seek treatment due to common military value systems such as “toughing it out”, handling problems on their own, and not making a big deal out of symptoms.

This data illustrates that mental health stigma and a lack of knowledge about mental illness severity, symptoms, and treatments are strong determinants of whether or not a soldier (both active duty and veteran) will seek treatment. Further, should these individuals overcome the stigma barrier and seek treatment, they may not have timely access to the high quality care that they deserve. While increased coverage is certainly a step in the right direction, it cannot have a meaningful impact unless there is a corresponding increase in available, high-quality services and a concerted effort to campaign for mental health awareness.

 

Guardian Behavioral Health Foundation is a nonprofit mental health organization that provides financial assistance to individuals and families living with a mental illness who cannot afford mental health services, and educates the community about mental illness through outreach activities and public education.