Recognizing the Mental Health Needs of Our Veterans
By Senator Mike Rounds
South Dakota is home to more than 72,000 veterans who have bravely and selflessly served our country. Making sure each veteran is cared for and receives top-notch health care has been a priority for me while working in the Senate. While there are many problems plaguing the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), addressing mental health reform is among the most important. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), 10 to 20 percent of veterans returning from Operations Iraqi and Enduring Freedom are diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and more than 150,000 veterans have been diagnosed with PTSD in the last 15 years.
Many returning veterans struggle with the invisible wounds of war long after they leave the battlefield. While the most recent available numbers on veterans suicide have shown improvement in recent years, even one veteran taking his or her life due to the mental and physical stresses caused by service to this nation is one too many. Physical injuries can be seen and treated, but too many veterans are suffering in silence from mental health issues that are often not visible on the surface.
Early last year, Republicans and Democrats in Congress came together to pass the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act. It was one of the first bills I cosponsored as a senator, and it was signed into law by the president. This law focuses on establishing programs to help veterans with PTSD and bring more mental health care specialists into VA facilities. Still, there is much more that needs to be done to take care of our nation’s heroes once they return home.
The Department of Health and Human Services says that surveillance is the first step in solving the problem of suicide at large. Accurate surveillance must then be followed by identifying risk and protective factors, which is followed by intervention strategies. Currently, there is no nationwide surveillance system in place to monitor suicide among all veterans. With the majority of veterans not enrolled in Veterans Health Administration, accurate data is hard to find. While the VA has done a decent job gleaning data from the National Death Index and developing data sharing agreements with all 50 states, surveillance still needs to be a top priority.
Many veterans today do not have access to mental health services when they need it most. I hear from veterans all across South Dakota who have trouble getting appointments at VA facilities. In fact, about 60 percent of my office’s casework stems from veterans requesting help. When a veteran is struggling with PTSD and seeks mental health help from his or her VA provider but is forced to wait weeks to see a doctor, we have a major problem on our hands. I am committed to working with my colleagues on the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee as well as VA Secretary Robert McDonald to address these critical issues.
The VA and our committee are committed to addressing the heartbreaking issue of veteran suicide and making sure each and every veteran gets the care he or she deserves.