Improving Mental Health Care for our Nation's Veterans

Dylan Simon

Mental health is a major health issue in the United States, as 43.8 million Americans suffer from diseases such as depression, anxiety and bipolar disorder. Over 50% of Americans who suffer from mental disorders do not receive any form of treatment or health services. Mental health has become a considerable issue for veterans returning from wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. As of 2015, up to 23% of those who have returned from these two countries have developed post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Veterans display a similar trend for lack of treatment as is seen in the general population. Even more alarming, of those who sought treatment in 2008, slightly over 50% received just minimally adequate care, in terms of duration of care and treatment received. With such a large portion of the veteran population affected, improvements in mental health research and better mental health treatments for veterans are needed.

In 2012, President Obama signed an Executive Order that aimed to make progress in meeting the current and future demands for mental health care in veterans. It directed agencies, such as the Department of Defense (DoD), Veteran Affairs (VA), and Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), to enhance mental health care, increase the number mental health providers, and promote research for effective treatments. A major component of this order was the National Research Action Plan (NRAP), a 10-year interagency blueprint for how to identify and develop effective diagnostics and treatments for improved mental health outcomes. The Consortium to Alleviate PTSD (CAP), jointly-funded through the DoD and the VA, is an NRAP project that received a total of $45 million over five years to develop new treatment options for mental health issues stemming from combat. Through its funding, CAP has supported valuable organizations like the South Texas Research Organizational Network Guiding Studies on Trauma and Resilience (STRONG STAR). The STRONG STAR consortium has researched the effectiveness of PTSD treatments offered through primary care centers and has found these efforts to be successful long term.

There have also been efforts to assure greater access to improve the quality of mental health care for veterans. An initiative called inTransition has been in place since 2010, pairing mental health professionals with veterans in military transitions. Whether veterans are transitioning their status within the military, returning from deployment, coming back to active duty, transitioning outside of the military, switching health care providers, or moving, this program provides veterans with personal coaches and resources to assist them, and it focuses on supporting healthy life choices. In response to the 2012 Executive Order, veterans receiving mental health care have automatically been enrolled in the program, and this has increased the number of veterans retained in mental health care.

While these programs have been an important step forward for veterans’ health, more work needs to be done. The CAP and inTransition programs were implemented four and six years ago, respectively. While they have both improved mental care services for veterans, 60% of eligible veterans still do not seek treatment, or they drop out of treatment programs early. Of the veterans who receive treatment, 30%-50% fail to show significant improvement. More research into mental health and how to best treat veterans is needed. To help us bring attention to the need for continued mental health research, please join us on November 21 for Public Health Thank You Day—a day to raise awareness about the important of public health research and practice, and celebrate all those involved in advancing public health. Join us on Facebook and Twitter using the hashtag #PHTYD to show appreciation for those who play such a critical role in keeping our country and the global community safe and healthy.

Dylan Simon is the Science Policy Intern at Research!America.

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Without research, there is no hope.
The Honorable Paul G. Rogers