Improving vets’ access to mental health care

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When we think of what it means to be healthy, we often think of physical health--maintaining an optimal weight, eating well and not having any ailments slowing us down. However, the definition of “healthy” includes not just physical but also mental and emotional wellbeing. Distressing statistics show we cannot afford to overlook the importance of balancing all of these essential parts of healthy living. I recently co-led the introduction of S. 1594, the Show Esteem and Respect for Veterans by Increasing Care and Equity Act to address the alarmingly high veteran suicide rates by allowing veterans open access to mental health care at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. While veterans are not the only Americans experiencing high suicide rates, veteran suicide rates in western states, including Idaho, remain dramatically higher than the general population. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports, “Suicide rates have been rising in nearly every state.” According to the CDC, Idaho ranks fifth-highest in the nation for suicide rates. This is more than 50 percent higher than the national average (14 percent). And, the rate of veteran suicides is approximately two times higher than general Idaho population suicides and 150 percent higher than the national veteran suicide rate.

Under current law, veterans who seek VA care more than five years after their discharge must prove the health issue for which they are seeking care is directly connected to their service. That puts an unfair burden on combat veterans seeking mental health services, as research shows mental health conditions related to military service may take years to manifest. Combat-related trauma is more likely than other non-combat sources of trauma to manifest itself in delayed-onset post-traumatic stress. One study found that approximately one in ten Vietnam veterans experienced post-traumatic symptoms more than 40 years after their deployment.

The SERVICE Act would allow all combat veterans to seek treatment for service-connected mental illnesses, regardless of when their condition presents itself. This would expand their access to mental health services to help ensure combat veterans receive needed care, even long after their return from deployment. Those who have bravely served our nation in uniform deserve comprehensive services, including mental health services, which support their return to civilian life. We can work to make a difference in this important part of the overall problem of suicide in our country, and I look forward to adding this bill to the growing list of veterans services reforms making their way to the President’s desk.

The more we mainstream discussions of mental health, the more we can remove stigmas and ease access to mental health resources. I again co-sponsored legislation recognizing June as “National Post-Traumatic Stress Awareness Month” and June 27, 2019, as “National Post-Traumatic Stress Awareness Day” to raise awareness about issues related to post-traumatic stress, reduce the associated stigma and help ensure those individuals suffering the invisible wounds of war receive proper treatment. I also recently had the opportunity to record a public service announcement about veteran suicide awareness and resources. We must BeThereforVeterans.com:

America’s servicemembers and veterans are strong and resilient, but some may face difficult times or even crisis after their service. In Idaho, we take care of each other, which is why I am asking you to join me in efforts to prevent suicide and be there for the veterans in your community. To someone going through a difficult time, your presence, your phone call, a wave at the mailbox — even the smallest act — has the power to save a life. Learn more at BeThereforVeterans.com.

Sen. Mike Crapo represents Idaho’s First Congressional District in the U.S. Senate. He can be reached at crapo.senate.gov.

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