BILOXI — The Veterans Affairs Gulf Coast Health Care System is getting more than 30 new mental-health personnel to handle the increase in veterans who have needed care as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan wind down.
Locally, 27 clinicians and 6 support personnel will join the 239 who work in the VA Gulf Coast’s mental-health operations, which has the task of caring for 60,000 veterans at five sites from Biloxi to Panama City, Fla.
“As the tide of war recedes, we have the opportunity, and the responsibility, to anticipate the needs of returning veterans,” VA Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric K. Shinseki said in a news release.
The Gulf Coast hirings are part of a national effort. The VA says since 2009, it’s seen 35 percent more veterans receiving mental-health services nationwide. Last year, more than 1.3 million received treatments. The VA has increased its mental-health budget by 39 percent and nearly doubled the mental-health staff to help meet the demand. The department recently announced 1,600 mental-health clinicians and 300 support staffers were being added nationwide to the VA workforce of about 21,000 mental-health staff.
Better outreach ability
The VA is hoping the new workers will be able to reach hundreds more Gulf Coast veterans battling mental illness. The new staff will work
with a team that treats vets through individualized care, readjustment counseling and “immediate crisis services.” The new workers may also allow the VA to take on long-term research on post-traumatic stress disorder and explore alternative therapies.
The VA has been criticized in recent years for the pace at which it’s treated potential mental-health patients. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on the West Coast ruled in 2011 the VA had to overhaul its mental-health system, including ensuring suicidal veterans are seen immediately, among other recommendations, according to the Associated Press. The AP reported the court had found the VA’s “unchecked incompetence” in handling the flood of post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental-health claims has been unconstitutional. But in May, a special 11-judge panel of the same court overturned that ruling, saying any changes had to come from Congress or the president, rather than a court.
A suicide every 80 minutes
This generation of war veterans has plenty of mental-health concerns. The New York Times reported in April for every member of the U.S. military killed on the battlefield this year, 25 will commit suicide. Veterans commit suicide at a rate of 6,500 per year, or one every 80 minutes, the report says.
An American Journal of Public Health study found merely being a veteran these days makes someone twice as likely to commit suicide, and for young male vets between ages 17 and 24 the risk nearly quadruples, the paper reported. Many who don’t commit suicide struggle with anxiety, substance abuse, depression and other issues.
Doubt has been cast on actual numbers of suicides and mental illness among vets. Some say there may be many problems going unreported because many vets don’t seek treatment or suicides are not being seen as connected with prior military service, among other issues.
New workers being sought
The recruitment for the new mental-health jobs has already begun. The VA said it expects to see the support staff hired within the next six months, and the harder-to-fill jobs should be occupied by mid 2013. There’s going to be an “aggressive, multifaceted, sustained national marketing and outreach” campaign to seek out candidates who are willing to take jobs in “highly rural” areas, among other locations.
“Mental-health services must be closely aligned with veterans’ needs and fully integrated with health-care facility operations,” said Dr. Robert Petzel, VA undersecretary for health. “Improving access to mental-health services will help support the current and future veterans who depend on VA for these vital services.”