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Sunday, March 19, 2006

Rep. Meehan: Working to Reduce Stigma, Provide Services for Veteran PTSD

Congressman Marty Meehan (D-MA), a senior member of the House Armed Services Committee, writes an important guest column in the Framingham, MA MetroWest Daily News today. He explains how the current post-deployment mental health screening and counseling programs are flawed -- and how legislation he is helping to craft aims to remedy many of the serious problems which result. Click on 'Article Link' below tags to read more...

In the interest of PSTD education, I am quoting the column in its entirety, adding links to provide access to related information at your fingertips:

On the third anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, it is important to reflect on the lessons learned and where to go from here. Many mistakes have been made, from poor prewar planning to a failed postwar reconstruction policy. Often overlooked, and just as alarming, are the inadequate resources available to help service members cope with their emotional and psychological scars when they return home. Post-war planning does not stop at Iraq’s border. We must provide the support our service members need to re-enter civilian life when they return stateside.

The current system is fundamentally flawed: it neither pays adequate attention to veterans suffering from mental health disorders nor dedicates sufficient resources to diagnosing and assisting them. A July 2004 New England Journal of Medicine study found that one in five of our troops involved in ground combat in Iraq suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), symptoms of which include major depression and generalized anxiety.

Even more troubling is that service members at a significant risk of mental health problems have often resisted seeking help because of the stigma associated with treatment. Among returning service members, only between 23 percent and 40 percent of those who tested positive for a mental health disorder sought professional help. This alarming statistic illustrates the need to educate our soldiers on this issue, and to end the stigma surrounding a legitimate illness.

The war in Iraq is the bloodiest in a generation, with urban and close quarter combat that is bound to leave lasting emotional scars. The reality is, the longer we fight the war in Iraq, the more troops will return suffering from PTSD. Working to address PTSD continues to be one of my top priorities in Congress.

In the 2006 National Defense Authorization Act, I worked with my colleagues on the Armed Services Committee to include a Mental Health Task Force that will study how the Defense Department and the Armed Services can better identify, treat, and support mental health needs for service members and their families. While this is a good first step, we must dramatically increase the amount of funding for PTSD screening and treatment to adequately assess and care for the emotional wounds of our returning service members. It’s unconscionable to send our brave young men and women into Iraq and then not try to make them whole -- mentally as well as physically - when they come home.

Last spring I introduced the Help Extend Respect Owed to Every Soldier (H.E.R.O.E.S.) Act, which would create a peer support program to educate military personnel about PTSD. It would also create a Defense Department mass media campaign to raise awareness about mental health and substance disorders among service members and their families. This program, which was endorsed by Dr. William Winkenwerder, Jr., assistant secretary of defense for Health Affairs at the Department of Defense, will help remove the stigma and encourage people to seek treatment.

The H.E.R.O.E.S. Act also requires that service members undergo a thorough mental and physical examination before being sent home. The current mental health screening is just a form to be filled out, not a real exam. If an examination reveals the need for treatment, it would be provided when the service member is back with his or her family, so returning troops don’t need to be concerned that revealing symptoms during an examination would delay their reunions with their loved ones. By reducing the stigma of PTSD, screening soldiers for the illness, and providing treatment for those affected by the illness, the H.E.R.O.E.S. Act will help thousands of returning soldiers win their final battle in this war.

President Theodore Roosevelt once said that anyone "good enough to shed his blood for his country is good enough to be given a square deal afterwards." We have a responsibility to the brave men and women returning from Iraq to provide them with the care and services they rightly deserve.

If you support this work, contact Rep. Meehan and let him know you have his back, and contact your own representatives to ask them to support the above legislation. And if you wish to thank the MetroWest Daily News for running this important public service column, I think they'd appreciate hearing from you.

Finally, take a look at which other legislators are working tirelessly on behalf of our returning combat veterans.

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