Journalism in the Public Interest

More Than Half of Recent War Vets Treated by VA Are Struggling With Mental Health Problems

Pressure increases on the military to improve mental health care as new data shows that 51 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are treated by the VA for psychological problems, up from 20 percent in 2004. 


(Chris Hondros/Getty Images)

More than half of all Iraq and Afghanistan veterans treated in Department of Veterans Affairs hospitals since 2002 have been diagnosed, at least preliminarily, with mental health problems, according to statistics obtained by the advocacy group Veterans for Common Sense.

The data, which is released quarterly, also show that the raw number of returning soldiers with psychological problems is rising. Nearly 18,000 new patients were treated for mental health issues at VA facilities in the last three months of last year—the most recent time period for which data is available—upping the total to more than 330,000.

The latest numbers confirm a trend that has intensified over the last several years. Paul Sullivan, the executive director of Veterans for Common Sense, said that when the organization first began to collect the data in late 2004, only 20 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans in VA hospitals had been diagnosed with mental problems.

The increase should come as no surprise, given that a recent military survey obtained by ProPublica and other media outlets shows that U.S. troops in Afghanistan are currently reporting lower morale and greater emotional strain than at any other time in the last five years.

That report notes that mental health staffing has doubled in warzones in order to ensure treatment is available immediately for soldiers who suffer psychological trauma.

Sullivan applauded the increase in staff abroad but questioned what’s being done to make sure that troubled troops are properly cared for once they come home.

“We truly support having more doctors in warzones, that’s great,” Sullivan said. “But we also need to make sure we have enough doctors here.”

Laurie Tranter, a spokeswoman for the VA, told ProPublica that the agency has increased the number of mental health staff in the United States by more than 40 percent since 2002 to more than 20,000. Tranter suggested that the increase in veterans diagnosed with and treated for mental health problems may, in part, reflect more proactive screening and better access to services.

Pressure is mounting on the military and the VA to fix long-standing shortfalls in mental health care.

A federal appeals court issued a scathing opinion of the VA’s system yesterday, noting that it takes an average of four years for veterans to receive mental health benefits, a beleaguered process that demands immediate reform.

Writing for a three-judge panel, Judge Stephen Reinhart said, “Although the VA is obligated to provide veterans mental health services, many veterans with severe depression or post-traumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”) are forced to wait weeks for mental health referrals. ... For those who commit suicide in the interim, care does not come soon enough.”

As reported by the Associated Press, the ruling by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals overturns a 2008 verdict and sends the case, which was filed against the VA by veterans’ advocates, back to U.S. District Court for resolution.

As a OEF vet who’s been struggling with the VA, I can tell you that the problem extends far beyond mental health issues. has an online EMMP (eye movement memory processing) program that addresses severe stress from traumatic events like PTSD. It is confidential, has been developed by two M.D.s, and is available online 24/7 from any home computer. There are comments on the site from users. The sessions are $20 each and last about 15 minutes. The site takes credit cards without requiring any name or address.

Mental health issues are very important and definitely need to be address for an individual to function within their family, on the job and in society.

The only question is whether the symptoms are attributed to mental illness are actually symptoms of a medical disorder. Brain injury for example can be misdiagnosed because the intake clinician attributes the medical symptoms as symptoms of depression.

Unique biomarkers and definitions defining symptoms using severity and specificity are necessary for soldiers (and civilians) to get the appropriate diagnosis and treatment.

Is the VA reaching out to social workers and psychologists to help fill the gaps in service? It is reported above that they have increased staff, but it seems that they are still terribly short-handed. Perhaps alliances with professional organizations, the APA, NASW and State Societies for Clinical Social Work could be explored. It is a disgrace to send these young Americans on tour after tour exposing them to all manner of traumas, and then leave them hanging because there are not enough therapists available to help them when they are mentally or emotionally damaged. Reaching out to these professional organizations seems like a plausible avenue of help.

stewart perry

May 11, 2011, 5:09 p.m.

A majority of these victims can lay the fault on bush and cheney for the invasion of Iraq, during our war with Afhganistan because of the Wprld Trade Center attack. Cheney, who led the semi-retarded president like a puppet,wanted to invade Iraq so his company Halliburton and its subsidiary could get the NO BID CONTRACT to fight in Iraq.  And to do that, they had to take away our winning war against Afghanistan. Our troops will suffer forever, as those two traitors reaped the reward including the additional benefit to bush’s Big Oil friends because he thought they would be the benefactors of cheney’s plan.  (That part did not come true)  What punishment have those two traitors to America suffered for their treachery?. They have not even been charged with self-dealing at the least and treason at the most.
My prayer for the two of them:  to suffer like the suffering they have caused thousands of troops and their families in America!

stewart perry

Melissa O'Neal

May 12, 2011, 11:01 a.m.

This is nothing new to those who have followed or studied the history of mental health services in the United States.  Veteran or not, we have a fragmented, underfunded system of care with shortages of providers and we have had these problems for decades.  Part of the problem is that we are dealing with damaged brains; it is incredibly difficult to parse out the physical attributes of mental illness because of the complexity involved with the brain.  Many people who study these issues would agree mental illnesses are medical illnesses.  However, for years, mental illnesses where not provided the same legitimacy as non-brain illnesses.  This is a shame, since the brain is just as “physical” as a pancreas, heart or liver.

The VA has some excellent Mental Health professionals but the problems goes beyond the quality of the provider. I have in Jacksonville Florida and we have somewhere near 100,000 veterans and it is a very long ways to a VA hospital. We have an out patient clinic tryinging to deal with a huge number of people. I hot a letter in April that said I could not be seen until mid July. I have severe clinical Depression, Anxiety and a number of other problems and getting an appointment every 4 months won’t do the job. They agree and my doctors agree so I have to go out on the town and use a TRICARE provider. That makes me one of the lucky ones. I can see her as I need to. I believe the VA is really trying but they are under budgeted and they don’t always have facilities to handle the load. Give them credit for trying because they do try and do the best they can with what they have in areas like this. They have even gone out to reservations to treat American Indians in need of help. They have done this several times. My experience with them has not been extensive but it has been for the most part positive.

The VA is a for profit medical institution.  They hand out contracts to vendors and they try to get in as many people enrolled in crap that vets may not necessarily need.  They attempted to force me to have a colonoscopy at age 30 and also enroll in psychological counselling.  I refused simply for the fact that several people who underwent the same rectal exam got infected with HIV at VA hospitals.  The symptoms that were being diagnosed as PTSD stopped after I refused to take the pain killers the VA hooked me on after I came back.  I was never in a war zone but I did have an injury that occured to my spine and neck three months before 9-11.  They refused to give me my disability benefits because I refused to play their game.  For profit means that they will schedule you an appointment and call you the day before and is you can’t make it they still charge Uncle Sam because you don’t show up.  For profit means driving 45 minutes one way for a doctor’s appointment they deem necessary and waiting three or four hours for the doctor to see you only to have a five minute conversation that went like this- Hey how are you Marine.  You feel better?  I read your medical record. Let us know if you feel any more aches.  Thank you for coming by.  To me that is wasteful of my time and of the governments money.

Colleen M. Crary, M.A.

May 14, 2011, 9:26 p.m.

I work with soldiers at Fearless Nation PTSD Support. They are being overmedicated, pushed aside, made to jump 100-feet high hoops to get the care they need. The military also keeps pushing immersion/exposure therapy (invented for _phobias_ not trauma) and EMDR (which can also retraumatize. It’s a travesty. And what the heck are we still doing in Iraq and Afghanistan anyway???

My brother’s VA doctor found a spot on his lung and said not to worry “we will keep an eye on it.”  My brother now has terminal cancer!  It would cost less money and save more lives if the VA Medical was abolished and taken over by private physicians.

This article is part of an ongoing investigation:
Brain Wars

Brain Wars: How the Military Is Failing Its Wounded

The military has failed to diagnose brain injuries in thousands of soldiers returning from overseas.

The Story So Far

Traumatic brain injury is considered the “signature wound” of soldiers fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. Official military statistics show that more than 115,000 soldiers have suffered mild traumatic brain injuries since the wars began. Shock waves from roadside bombs can ripple through soldiers’ brains, causing damage that sometimes leaves no visible scars but may cause lasting mental and physical harm.

More »

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