Mental health care still a top priority
Malcolm Stephens, an Air Force veteran from Fort Worth, Texas, adds his Zentangle art to the collage made by his fellow veterans during the 2014 National Veterans Creative Arts Festival Art Therapy Workshop. (VA Photo)

Mental health care still a top priority

Every day veterans struggle with untreated mental illnesses, suffering from the deep and lasting effects that impact every facet of their lives.

“The highest cost of failing to provide mental health care to veterans is losing the life of one of our nation’s defenders to suicide,” said Roscoe Butler, deputy director of The American Legion Veterans Affairs & Rehabilitation Division, during his testimony before a Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs hearing Oct. 28.

Ensuring veterans have access to mental health care remains a top priority for The American Legion, Butler stated.

One of The American Legion’s legislative priorities for the 114th Congress is to ensure that Congress and the Department of Veterans Affairs provide help for veterans struggling with mental health issues and brain injuries, ensuring that extensive resources are dedicated to study the devastating effects of post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries.

Additional resources and alternative treatments must be provided as options for veterans and servicemembers in need of treatment for brain injuries and mental stress, Butler added. For more than a decade The American Legion has conducted detailed examinations of the VA healthcare system as part of the System Worth Saving Task Force.

Established in 2003, the task force assesses the quality and timeliness of veterans health care within the VA healthcare system, of which mental health care is a critical component to the overall evaluation.

“We are leading the engagement at every level – from VA and DOD officials to veterans and their families in every community. We hold summits, we regularly survey veterans, we’re deeply committed to speaking to the folks who are fighting this battle in the trenches to make sure we’re providing the voice of those fighters when it comes to looking for solutions.”

In 2013 the Legion compiled “The War Within”, a detailed study of veterans and their experiences with treatment for PTSD and TBI. Following a survey released last year and again in 2015 regarding mental health treatment, industry experts are analyzing the data for patterns as VA adapts their care and treatment plans.

The surveys indicated concerns from veterans about over-medication and a lack of complementary and alternative treatment options – such as art therapy, companion dogs, equine therapy, hyperbaric oxygen treatments and many more options.

In response, VA pledged to increase access to these sorts of treatments. After speaking to Legionnaires and traveling to VA facilities as part of the System Worth Saving Task Force, findings indicated that access to these types of treatments – which could be beneficial to treating veterans with mental health conditions – varies greatly from location to location.

“This level of inconsistency is troubling,” noted Butler, who was on hand during site visits. “In fact, one of the most serious problems plaguing the system is not a lack of proper ideas – but inconsistent application of VA guidance. When we talked to veterans across the country about how well VA was implementing a mental healthcare summit initiative, the responses varied widely.”

The VA must improve their consistency. If they cannot execute their policies evenly across the country and forge connections with the veterans they serve, they will drive veterans away from beneficial care for their mental health disorders, said Butler.

Many of the problems VA faces in delivering effective mental health care revolves around two primary considerations – lack of staff and lack of consistency. If they are to change their culture to be better focused on serving veterans, ensuring consistency needs to be at the top of the list of priorities for achieving that goal.

The country’s obligation to its armed forces and veterans includes a responsibility for their care and treatment from wounds inflicted upon them while serving their country. The challenge raised by traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder demands a dedicated, well-coordinated, and flexible response that adapts care and treatment to an individual’s needs.

Butler concluded his testimony thanking the committee for their diligence and commitment to examining this critical issue, ensuring their attention stays focused on the critical issue of veterans’ mental health care.