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VA to beef up mental health services for soldiers

/ Source: The Associated Press

Veterans Affairs Secretary Jim Nicholson pledged Monday to add mental health services at more than 100 VA medical centers to fight resistance to seeking help for depression and other illnesses.

The VA is being pressed by growing cases of mental health problems such as post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury from veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, Nicholson said at a national forum of VA mental health experts. He said the department will work harder to meet the challenge.

To fight stigma against seeking help for anxiety and depression, the VA this year is devoting $37.7 million of its nearly $3 billion mental health budget toward placing psychiatrists, psychologists and social workers within primary care clinics.

The additions will take effect in two-thirds of the VA’s 153 medical centers, supplementing mental services already offered at the department’s 882 outpatient clinics.

Such a move will help allow the VA to begin testing all veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan for mild to moderate brain injury, an often unseen problem that can emerge months after finishing service. It would also allow for brief treatment for those who may not require specialty care, Nicholson said.

“Given the possible reluctance of some veterans to talk about emotional problems, increasing our mental health presence in primary care settings will give veterans a familiar venue in which to receive care without actually going to an identified mental health clinic,” he said.

Other measures now under way:

  • Adding 23 new VA-run Vet Centers, which are small, storefront walk-in clinics with a staff of about 5 people, to reach a total of 232 centers nationwide. The centers provide combat stress counseling, marriage therapy, job assistance and medical referrals, although recent congressional surveys found them to be understaffed with long wait times due to increased demand for services.
  • Hiring more suicide prevention coordinators for VA medical centers and keeping emergency services for mental health open around the clock, as well as starting a full-time suicide prevention hot line. This comes after the VA inspector general earlier this year found that veterans were at increased risk of suicide because of spotty services in clinics nationwide.
  • Hosting state mental health conferences to facilitate collaboration of veterans services on a state, local and community level. Some state officials have complained that the VA needs to do a better job of sharing information about wounded soldiers returning home so states can help.

Monday’s VA forum comes amid renewed focus on veterans health care because of the prolonged Iraq war.

Following disclosures earlier this year of shoddy outpatient treatment at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, both the VA and the Pentagon have acknowledged missteps in planning for the surge of injured veterans returning home. That has prompted several reviews by congressional panels and presidential commissions on ways to improve care.

A recent Pentagon study found about 38 percent of soldiers and 31 percent of Marines report psychological conditions such as brain injury and PTSD after returning from deployment. Among members of the National Guard, the figure is much higher — 49 percent — with numbers expected to grow because of repeated and extended deployments.

“VA is advancing its mental health program in a full-court press,” Nicholson said.