U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki often reminds us: As the tide of war recedes, we have the opportunity and the responsibility to anticipate the needs of returning veterans. As these newest veterans return home, we must ensure that they have access to quality mental health care in order to successfully make this transition to civilian life.
Last year, VA provided specialty mental health services to more than 1.3 million veterans — a 35 percent increase since 2007 in the number of veterans who received mental health services at VA. That’s why we recently announced that VA will add an additional 1,600 mental health staff professionals and an additional 300 support staff members nationwide. In Northwest and Central Oregon and Southwest Washington, we have hired 10 mental health professionals since September 2011 and plan to hire an additional 24 by September 2012.
These efforts to hire more mental health professionals build on our record of service to veterans. President Obama, Secretary Shinseki and the leaders of the Portland VA Medical Center have devoted more people, programs, and resources to veteran mental health services. VA has increased the mental health care budget by 39 percent since 2009. What’s more, we’ve increased the number of mental health staff members by 41 percent since 2007. That means today, we have a team of professionals that’s 20,590 strong — all dedicated to providing much-needed direct mental health treatment to veterans.
While we have made great strides to expand mental health care access, we have much more work to do. The men and women who have had multiple deployments over a decade of combat have carried a tremendous burden for our country.
That’s why Secretary Shinseki has challenged the department to improve upon our progress and identify barriers that prevent military veterans from receiving timely treatment. As we meet with veterans here in the Pacific Northwest, we learn firsthand what we need to do to improve access to care. Secretary Shinseki has sought out the hardest-to-reach, most underserved places — from the remote areas of Alaska to inner city Philadelphia — to hear directly from veterans and employees. And we’re taking action to reach out to those who need mental health care instead of waiting for them to come to us.
Our mission is to increase access to our care and services. We’ve greatly increased the number of Veterans Readjustment Counseling Centers, or Vet Centers, throughout the country. We’ve also developed an extensive suicide prevention program that saves lives every day. For example, our team at the Veteran Crisis Line has fielded more than 600,000 calls from military veterans in need and helped rescue more than 21,000 veterans who were in immediate crisis. That’s 21,000 veterans who have been saved.
The mental health of America’s veterans not only touches those of us at VA and the Department of Defense, but also families, friends, co-workers, and people in our communities. We ask that you urge veterans in your communities to reach out and connect with VA services. To locate the nearest VA facility or Vet Center for enrollment and to get scheduled for care, veterans can visit VA’s website at www.va.gov or http://www.va.gov. Immediate help is available at http://www.veteranscrisisline.net/ or by calling the Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255 (push 1) or texting 838255.
John E. Patrick is director of the Portland VA Medical Center.