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Military, veterans need better mental health services, experts tell Congress

By Cristobella Durrette, Medill News Service
Military, veterans need better mental health services, experts tell Congress
Retired Brig. Gen. Jack Hammond (left) greets House Oversight and Reform Subcommittee on National Security chairman Rep. Stephen F. Lynch, D-Mass., after a hearing on suicide prevention among military members and veterans on Wednesday. Photo by Cristobella Durrette/Medill News Service/UPI

WASHINGTON, Nov. 17 (UPI) -- The departments of Veterans Affairs and Defense are falling short in their mission to evaluate and enhance mental health care for military service members, veterans and their families, mental health experts told lawmakers on Wednesday.

"When they lose hope for a day without pain or ability to move forward, then they give up and take their lives," said retired Brig. Gen. Jack Hammond during a hearing before the House Oversight and Reform Subcommittee on National Security.

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"We are in a race to reclaim that hope," Hammond said.

Witnesses from organizations that treat veterans, active duty service members and their families for the mental health wounds left by combat recommended addressing financial and social barriers to care.

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Their call comes as suicide rates among service members and veterans have climbed.

"Suicide is a public health problem facing all populations, and has been a persistent and growing issue for our servicemembers and veterans," said Alyssa Hundrup, director of health care at the Government Accountability Office.

DoD in September reported an increase in the suicide rate for active-duty service members from 2015 to 2020. Over those five years, the suicide rate among this group climbed by 41.3%, from 20.3 to 28.7 suicides per 100,000 service members.

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The VA also found increases in the suicide rate among veterans, reporting a 35.9% rise suicide rates from 2001 to 2019.

Hundrup reiterated GAO's recommendations for preventing suicide among military members and veterans, including a provision that calls for the Defense Suicide Prevention Office to evaluate the demonstrated effectiveness of individual non-clinical suicide prevention efforts among military populations.

Veteran psychological well-being requires specialized care, said Carla Stumpf-Patton, senior director of postvention programs at the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors.

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Factors such as trauma, identity changes, substance use and grief-related concerns necessitate the use of a holistic approach to build rapport and trust with veterans seeking such services.

But that mental health care may feel inaccessible because of the stigma around seeking help, Stumpf-Patton said.

Shame or anxiety over accessing mental health resources "is often one of the largest barriers when it comes to seeking care," because of concerns over impacts to career development and advancement opportunities, she said.

"According to the VA, only six of the 20 veterans who die by suicide each day were in VA care at the time of their death," Stumpf-Patton said.

"This poses the question as to 'why' they are not seeking care -- barriers to treatment, quality of services provided, mistrust in the system and stigma associated with seeking care are all contributing factors," she said.

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The Biden administration's new national strategy, "Reducing Military and Veteran Suicide," aims to remove hurdles like these between service members and veterans and mental health resources.

"In the wake of these terrible tragedies, we must ask ourselves impossible questions. What signs did we miss? What more could we have done? The truth is, there's no easy answer. There's no simple solution. But there is hope," President Joe Biden wrote in the strategy document.

The five key takeaways include ensuring time and space between a person in crisis and access to means that could harm them like a firearm or medication.

Other takeaways include improving care in emergency settings and in identifying those in need of help; lowering or eliminating copays; promoting economic health while reducing food and housing insecurity; and coordinating interagency research and program evaluation efforts.

The strategy does not include a timeline for implementation, but time is critical, as thousands of military members and veterans continue to die each year, Hammond said.

"As we look at the crisis we now face with Veteran and military suicide rates rising rapidly, we must tap into every available resource in the country," Hammond said.

"We must demonstrate the same level of flexibility, adaptability, and innovation that our warriors demonstrated for the past twenty years on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan," he said.

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If you or someone you know needs help, call the National Suicide Prevention lifeline at 800-273-8255. You can also text a crisis counselor by messaging the Crisis Text Line at 741741.

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