Number seeking mental-health care up 70% in past year
Gregg Zoroya, USA Today
WASHINGTON – The number of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans seeking treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder from the Department of Veterans Affairs jumped by nearly 20,000 – almost 70 percent – in the 12 months ending June 30, records show.
More than 100,000 veterans, about one out of seven of those who have served and left active duty, have sought help for mental illness since late 2001, the start of the war in Afghanistan, according to VA records collected through the end of June.
Almost half of those cases were for the disorder.
The numbers do not include thousands treated at storefront Vet Centers operated by the department across the country. Nor does it include active-duty personnel diagnosed with the syndrome or former service members who have not sought treatment from the VA for mental problems…
About 1.5 million U.S. soldiers have served in Iraq or Afghanistan, and 750,000 have since left the military eligible for VA health care.
The nearly 50,000 VA-documented syndrome cases far exceeds the official Pentagon tally for all wounded from those conflicts, which stands at 30,000.
The discrepancy underscores the view by military and civilian health officials that troops tend to ignore, hide or fail to recognize their mental-health wounds until after their military service.
The overall number of such cases among war veterans grew by nearly 60 percent from 63,767 on June 30, 2006, to 100,580 on June 30, 2007, VA records show.
The mental-health issues include the stress syndrome, drug and alcohol dependency and depression. They involve troops who left the military and sought health care from the VA.
Mental health is the second-largest area of illness for war veterans after orthopedic problems and is increasing at a faster rate, according to the VA.
The reality of troubled veterans is finally hitting the department, said Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., a former soldier and member of the Senate subcommittee that oversees VA spending.
"They're trying to catch up with a moving train, because before, I think they were underfunded. They weren't getting the resources they needed," Reed said.
Congress has criticized the Bush administration for failing to spend enough on VA health care, including mental-health services. House and Senate committees have added $1.7 billion to the administration's $27.3 billion VA 2008 budget request.
The VA said it began responding in 2005 to war-related needs, gradually increasing by 4,000 to nearly 11,000 the number of mental-health specialists, spokeswoman Allison Aikele said.
"We are seeing the increase (in mental-health cases), and we are preparing to deal with it," said Antonette Zeiss, a psychologist and deputy chief of the department's mental-health services.
Treating post-traumatic stress syndrome can be complicated and expensive, said Joy Ilem, health specialist with the Disabled American Veterans Association. The challenge is making treatment available wherever veterans may live"If somebody needs to get into a PTSD program … you want them to have that access immediately," Ilem said. "(Delays mean) they're at a higher risk for drug or alcohol abuse … even suicide."
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