Thursday, 19 March 2009

Number 9) Improved treatment for mental illness among the military

It's no secret that in recent years, our service men and women have been called upon to serve in deeply traumatic conditions. Instances of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder amongst the military are drastically on the rise, and treatment for it has not increased to meet the need.

An extraordinary story in the New Yorker late last year (read the whole thing!) put the problem into perspective for me:

Compared with other American wars, the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan seem to be producing victims at a high rate. A recent RAND Corporation study estimated that three hundred thousand veterans of America’s post-9/11 wars—nearly twenty per cent of those who have served—are suffering from P.T.S.D. or major depression, and many more cases are expected to surface in the years ahead. This elevated rate is generally attributed to the rigors of a long war being fought without conscription: multiple deployments and heavy use of National Guard and reserve units. And on the ground, at unit level, the discouragement of anyone with stress symptoms from asking for help is intense. The same RAND study found that, mainly because of the stigma still attached to P.T.S.D., only half of those afflicted have sought treatment.
The suicide rate among veterans and active-duty military personnel has been rising as well. The number of soldiers who killed themselves last year was the highest since the Army began keeping records, in 1980. When Dr. Ira Katz, the Department of Veterans Affairs chief of mental services, learned earlier this year that preliminary internal reports suggested that a thousand veterans in V.A. care were attempting suicide each month, he sent a colleague an e-mail saying, “Shh! . . . Is this something we should (carefully) address ourselves in some sort of release before somebody stumbles on it?” Another e-mail, written in March, 2008, by Dr. Norma J. Perez, a P.T.S.D. program co√∂rdinator in Texas, said, “Given that we are having more and more compensation seeking veterans, I’d like to suggest that you refrain from giving a diagnosis of PTSD straight out.”

These men and women aren't just a danger to themselves as suicide risks - left untreated they are also a danger to the communities they return to. But with the programs that manage this problem overstretched, and a strong stigma associated with mental illness, thousands of people aren't getting the help they need. In this study, only 27% or people who showed symptoms of having a problem were getting any help

No matter what you think of the wars in Iraq and Afganistan, the people who fought in them deserve better than this callous indifference.

Obama's budget will increase funding for PTSD, Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) and psychological disorders. It will create a tracking system for TBI with a single designated point of responsibility. It will add extra mental health professionals stationed directly with the troops capable of identifying and treating at risk individuals. And it will fund the National Intrepid Center of Excellence for psychological health and traumatic brain injury, which is due to open this year and which will be a cutting edge research and educational facility leading on these issues.

This funding will create jobs, protect our military and save lives. Money well spent.

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