Advocacy Issue Brief:
VA Mental Health Care

The Situation

  • Since the wars began in Iraq and Afghanistan, more than 2.4 million service members have deployed; often multiple times. Of this group, 1.5 million are now veterans and have become eligible for VA health care.
  • Of the 1.5 million who have become eligible for VA health care, 834,467 have obtained care and 444,551 have been diagnosed with a mental disorder.
  • Experts estimate that about 11-20% of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, as many as 10% of Gulf War veterans and about 30% of Vietnam veterans have experienced PTSD, which is linked to other psychiatric conditions, substance use disorders (SUD), and unemployment.
  • Over the past five years VA’s Office of Mental Health Services has strived to develop and provide a comprehensive set of mental health services throughout the VA health care system while seeing a 35% increase in the number of veterans receiving mental health services . VA provided specialty mental health services to 1.3 million veterans in 2011.

The Challenge

  • The quality of VA mental health care, including timely access, has been the topic of many Congressional hearings, government reports and media articles. VA indicates it is developing methods to improve access and address barriers; but veterans who seek VA mental health care often face difficulty with timely appointments despite a 41 % increase in mental health staff, VA policies for scheduling mental health visits.
  • GAO identified key barriers that deter veterans from seeking mental health care including stigma, lack of understanding or awareness of mental health care, and logistically challenges to accessing care.
  • Experts note that timely care and early intervention can improve veterans’ quality of life, prevent long- term consequences of SUD, prevent chronic illness and suicide, promote recovery, and minimize the long-term disabling effects of chronic mental health problems.

The Solution

  • DAV urges Congress to ensure ample resources are available for VA mental health programs including Vet Centers, the promotion of evidence-based treatments for PTSD and specialty SUD services to provide effective mental health care for all enrolled veterans needing such services.
  • DAV urges VA to provide timely access for veterans seeking VA primary mental health care and specialized programs, emphasizing early intervention and routine screening for all post-deployed veterans as a critical building block to an effective suicide prevention effort.
  • DAV urges Congress and VA to make participation in the Transition Assistance Program mandatory for all discharging service members, and to invest in post-deployment mental health research to close gaps in care and develop best practices in screening, diagnosis, and treatment of war-related mental health conditions.