Vet Suicide Epidemic: New Questions About Military Mental Health Screenings

By now, many Americans know that mental health problems can be crippling for veterans, increasing the risk of divorce, unemployment, even homelessness and suicide. A powerful new CBS report offers a dire warning:

"Veterans aged 20 through 24, those who have served during the war on terror... [have] the highest suicide rate among all veterans, estimated between two and four times higher than civilians the same age."

This shocking data only highlights the tremendous need for quick action to treat troops' mental health problems. PTSD is treatable, especially if it's caught early.

Unfortunately, the Department of Defense's system for screening troops -- a bunch of paperwork followed by a phone call -- doesn't catch most of the people who will need treatment. We vets have known this for years. This week, an important new study in the Journal of the American Medical Association agreed.

The study looks at the paperwork forms on 88,000 soldiers to see who needed treatment and who actually got care, and came to some disturbing conclusions.

1) Asking a troop just back from Iraq to fill out another form is not the same as screening them for PTSD. The report concludes: "Surveys taken immediately on return from deployment substantially underestimate the mental health burden." That's why it's crucial that troops get mandatory, in-person interviews with a mental health professional. And not just when they come home, but months later, when the long-term effects of combat have had time to become visible.

2) Mental health issues are family issues. In the six months after getting home, there was a four-fold increase in troops' concerns about "interpersonal conflicts" with family and friends. The military needs to do a better job of reaching out to troops' families, so they can help get their loved ones into treatment.

3) National Guardsmen and Reservists are facing a special set of issues, and their concerns need to get heard. 42.4 percent of National Guardsmen and Reservists were identified as needing mental health treatment, compared to 20.3 percent of the active duty. These troops are more likely to have family and financial problems result from their deployment, and when they get home, they go straight back to work in a civilian job. No wonder they have higher rates of stress. We need to get them the care they need, starting with stronger job protections and better family support for deploying reserve troops.

4) Troops need more time to access care. Far more troops admitted a mental health problem when interviewed after six months than when they just got home. Of those who received a referral for mental health treatment, 39 percent still had not seen a mental health professional 90 days after their second interview. That's nine months after their return. The military and the VA need to prepare for the time-lag between troops coming home and their entry into the mental health care system.

As the authors of the JAMA study conclude, there is an "enormous opportunity" for the military to "intervene early before soldiers leave active duty." We know the consequences if we fail to act. The only question is whether we have the political will to help these heroes before it's too late.

Next Thanksgiving, I hope we can all be thankful for the action Washington took on this critical issue.