White House directs resources to target military and veteran mental health issues

Enduring Freedom

By Debbie Gregory.

Thousands of mental health providers, millions of dollars, and hundreds of mental health summits across the nation – the White House is arming the VA to tackle mental health issues and get help for every veteran who needs it.

As he opened the National Conference on Mental Health, President Barack Obama said, “Today, we lose 22 veterans a day to suicide — 22. We’ve got to do a better job … of preventing these all-too-often silent tragedies. That’s why we’ve poured an enormous amount of resources into high-quality care and better treatment for our troops.”

The White House is hosting the conference as the first of a series of steps to assist the nation in combating diagnoses such as PTSD and TBI. One in five adults suffers from mental illness, and still the diseases routinely are untreated. President Obama hopes to end the stigma that often comes with a diagnosis.  Obama singled out service members and veterans who struggle with mental health issues, but are afraid to get help.

“We see it in veterans who come home from the battlefield with the invisible wounds of war but who feel, somehow, that seeking treatment is a sign of weakness when, in fact, it’s a sign of strength,” the president said.

In conjunction with the conference, the VA announced that it met the president’s goal to hire 1,600 new mental health professionals to give better access to mental health services for veterans, service members and military family members. Obama set the goal in an executive order in August, 2013.

Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric K. Shinseki said, “Meeting this goal is an important achievement, but we recognize that we must continue to increase access to the quality mental health care Veterans have earned and deserve.”

The VA has also hired 318 new peer specialists and expects to meet the goal of hiring 800 peer specialists by Dec. 31, 2013 as outlined in the Executive Order.  The department also has enhanced the capacity of its crisis line by 50 percent and established 24 pilot projects in nine states where VA is partnering with community mental-health providers to help veterans more quickly access mental health services.

In addition to hiring more mental health professionals, VA is expanding the use of innovative technology to serve Veterans in rural or underserved areas. VA expects to increase the number of Veterans receiving care from tele-mental health services in fiscal year 2013, and has increased the number of Vet Centers, which provide readjustment counseling and referral services from 233 in 2008 to 300 in 2012.

This summer, the VA is directing 151 of its health care centers nationwide to conduct mental health summits with community partners, which include local government officials, community-based organizations and veteran service organizations. The summits will identify and link community-based resources to support the mental health needs of veterans and their families and increase awareness of VA programs and services.

The president also announced an online effort to combat mental illness. The White House launched http://mentalhealth.gov, a consumer-friendly website with tools that help users with the basics of mental health and the signs of mental illness, and show them how to talk about mental health and how to get help. The site also features interviews with celebrities and other Americans who have been affected by mental illness.

The VA previously launched an award-winning, national public awareness campaign called Make the Connection, aimed at reducing the stigma associated with seeking mental health care. It also informed Veterans, their families, friends, and members of their communities about VA resources. To view the site, visit, www.maketheconnection.net.