VA's Mental Health Caseload Surges

By Lolita C. Baldor
Associated Press
Friday, October 13, 2006

More than one-third of veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars seeking medical treatment from the Veterans Health Administration report symptoms of stress or other mental disorders -- a tenfold increase in 18 months, according to an agency study.

The dramatic jump in cases -- coming as more troops face multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan -- has triggered concern among some veterans groups that the agency may not be able to meet the demand for care.

Veterans and Defense Department officials said the increase in soldiers complaining of stress or symptoms of mental disorder may suggest that efforts to reduce the stigma of such problems are working and that commanders and medical personnel are more adept at recognizing symptoms.

"It's definitely better than it was in past generations," said Paul Rieckhoff, executive director of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.

Officials of the Department of Veterans Affairs say they have increased funding for mental health services, have hired at least 100 more counselors and are not overwhelmed by the rising demands. "We're not aware that people are having trouble getting services from us in any consistent way or pattern," said Michael J. Kussman, acting undersecretary for health and top doctor at the VA.

Nearly 64,000 of the more than 184,000 veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars who have sought VA health care were found to exhibit potential symptoms of post-traumatic stress, drug abuse or other mental disorders as of the end of June, according to the latest report by the Veterans Health Administration. Of those, close to 30,000 had possible post-traumatic stress disorder, said the report, which was completed in August and recently obtained by the Associated Press.

Kussman said the number of troops reporting symptoms of stress probably represents a "gross overestimation" of those actually suffering from mental health disorders. Most of the troops who return from Iraq have "normal reactions to abnormal situations," such as flashbacks or trouble sleeping, Kussman said.

The VA, he said, has designated $300 million for post-traumatic stress disorders for 2005-06, and is seeking another $300 million for 2007.

Veterans groups don't have data on the number of veterans encountering problems with the VA, but they said veterans are reporting long delays for appointments at the agency's medical centers.

One soldier in Virginia Beach, who said he was having a hard time sleeping after returning from Iraq was told he would have to wait 2 1/2 months for an appointment at the VA facility, Rieckhoff said.

Rieckhoff said the Buffalo veterans medical center gave his organization a "wish list" of needed supplies and other expenses, including wheelchairs, rehabilitation equipment and medical monitors.

The Defense Department has made mental health assessments and education programs mandatory for active-duty service members returning from war. Several dozen combat stress teams are working with military units to prevent and identify stress or other mental health concerns. The department has also provided self-assessment screening on the Internet so military members can evaluate their symptoms.

Joyce Adkins, the Pentagon's director of stress management programs, said the number of service members reporting mental health problems or symptoms has increased slightly.

"We've done a lot of education for service members at multiple times, to help them understand . . . the common problems associated with deployment, the symptoms they might experience and what that might mean," she said.

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