On Aug. 31, 2012, President Obama signed the "Improving Access to Mental Health Services for Veterans, Service Members and Military Families" executive order. The order mandates an expansion of Veterans' Crisis Line capacity, an increase in staffing at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), and improved research into PTSD and traumatic brain injuries, among other points.
The VA has made extraordinary strides in meeting the mental health needs of wounded veterans and has implemented innovative and effective programs, but there is more to be done. We here at the Mental Health Association of New York City have long advocated for some of the initiatives contained in the executive order, so we commend the administration for confronting the problems facing our veterans. Estimates from the VA have stated that a veteran dies by suicide every 80 minutes, and many veterans can't or don't avail themselves of the programs and resources offered by the VA. We believe this order will make headway in reducing these troubling statistics, but we believe that the order only scratches the surface of all that is needed.
One significant aspect of the order is the increase in partnerships the VA will establish with community-based providers. This is critical, because as the NYS Health Foundation report, "Coming Home to Caring Communities: A Blueprint for Serving Veterans and Families," states, "Local communities are the new 'home base' for veterans and their families." However, all too often veterans come home to local communities that are not prepared to meet their health, mental health, or social service needs. Veterans are likely to turn, if at all, to civilian-based providers for help, but these providers are not often equipped with the military cultural competence they need to address veterans' unique needs, concerns, and experiences. We must enhance the capabilities of civilian providers, especially mental health providers.
The order stipulates that the VA establish at least 15 new pilot sites in communities without significant resources for veterans. We applaud the administration for moving forward in establishing pilot sites, but with 50 states and hundreds of thousands of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans returning home over the next several years, 15 sites will only reach a fraction of the veteran population seeking community-based care. In addition, the order does not specify how many veterans can be treated at these 15 sites, or if the sites will provide treatment personnel with culturally competent skills to assist this special population of veterans.
Once these questions are answered, we will have a much better sense of how far the order will go in providing necessary, timely solutions for our veterans. In the meantime we praise the administration for working to strengthen veterans' mental health services and urge them to continue to expand needed access.
If you or a loved one is a veteran or active service member in need, please call the Veterans Crisis Line at 800-273-TALK (8255) and Press 1.
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