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Executive Order Gives More Veterans Access To Mental Health Care

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President Donald Trump signed an executive order in January that expands access to mental health care to all veterans, a change intended to stem their rising suicide rate.

The suicide rate among veterans has risen 35 percent since 2001. Twenty veterans commit suicide every day, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs.

The order targets veterans in the first year of their transition from the military to civilian life, a particularly vulnerable time for them.

The post-military life of David Johansen of Norwood, a Navy veteran, illustrates the need for more mental health services. He struggled with drugs and alcohol for years after his discharge. He didn’t understand why, until he turned to the veteran's hospital in Brockton for help, where he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

“I didn’t know I had it. My life’s been ruined with drugs and alcohol,” he said.

Johansen was eligible for help because he’s a combat veteran. Otherwise, he may not have had that privilege. But under Trump's executive order, all veterans will have access to mental health care for a year, regardless of whether they served in combat or have a service-related disability.

Even if they never served in a war zone, veterans can still suffer from PTSD, anxiety and other disorders.

One-third of all the veterans treated at the Veteran's Affairs Boston Healthcare System have a mental health condition or substance use disorder, says Dr. John Bradley, chief of psychiatry. Bradley says the executive order will not only mean treatment for more veterans, but also treatment at the right time. Last year, more than 7,000 veterans committed suicide, a pattern Bradley believes can be addressed if veterans get the proper care, especially in the first year of leaving the military.

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A poster at the Veteran's Affairs Boston Healthcare System's Brockton campus.
Tina Martin/WGBH News

“That’s a high-risk window for suicide. So anything we can do to help veterans make the transition smoothly from their active duty service to their civilian life in Veterans Administration care is a good thing,” Bradley said. 

Roughly 250,000 veterans are discharged or retire each year. Under the new guidelines, veterans will be eligible to receive treatment for up to a year after they leave the military. 

While the executive order is seen as a good start, it is missing some specifics, says Tom Kane, who is the director of the William Joiner Institute for the Study of War and Social Consequences at UMass Boston.

“They’re going to have more people seeking services, hopefully, and a need for more staff, and trained counselors for these. And that’s a question I have about whether there’ll be funding and human resources made available,” he said. Kane also suggested the program should provide support for family members of veterans.

Veterans often suffer from more than one disorder, Kane adds, so diagnosis and treatment can be complex. He says access to treatment should extend beyond a year.

Bradley says his team in the Boston VA system can handle any increase in patients, and his goal is to treat them for as long as they need the care.

“We don’t have a specific number estimated that will come to us, but we are prepared for an influx. We have excellent access standards and we welcome new veterans to serve in our community,” he said.

Johansen said treatment has been a life saver for him, and he hopes all veterans get the help they need. He says it shouldn’t matter whether they are newly discharged, or someone like him, who was discharged nearly 40 years ago.

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