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Thursday, March 30, 2006

Update on President's Mental Health Commission Meeting

Wednesday, the New Freedom Commission on Mental Health regrouped on Capitol Hill to hear a variety of panels. One panel focused on the mental health of returning war vets. Kaiser Network webcast the event, and it's now available online.

Click on 'Article Link' below tags for an update...

From UPI's Health Business Correspondent:

Social stigma and lack of funding are still preventing progress in the areas of veterans' health, suicide and mental health in the workplace, experts said Wednesday. Three years after President Bush convened the first New Freedom Commission on Mental Health, the commissioners met again to assess progress on the recommendations in their original report.

Progress has been made on the individual level they say, with people locally taking up the cause of improving mental health services even in the face of dwindling budgets. The problem arises on the federal level -- and they attribute that to a lack of leadership.

These were the specific findings regarding the current state of veterans PTSD diagnosis and care:

Stefanie Pelkey described the ordeal of her husband Michael, who began displaying symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after he returned from fighting in Iraq. He had trouble accessing military mental health services, and his officers and wife -- who was also in the army -- did not realize the severity of his symptoms. He ultimately committed suicide by shooting himself in the chest, leaving behind his wife and a baby son. After her husband's death, Pelkey said she had trouble accessing benefits because her husband had not been diagnosed with PTSD by an official military psychiatrist.

The families of returning soldiers need to be better educated on the symptoms of PTSD, Pelkey said, and services need to be made more widely available and for a longer period after troops return from war. "I feel the lessons have not been learned," she said. "I have traveled and seen programs that work, but they are different from post to post and sometimes not available at all. It needs to be centralized so all soldiers can access them.

Pelkey added, "Until the senior leaders of our country start recognizing these deaths outside the theatre of operations, soldiers will not come forward with their own battles with PTSD."

Frances Murphy, deputy under-secretary for health and health policy coordination at the Department of Veterans' Affairs outlined changes the agency is undertaking to help the estimated 18 percent of soldiers who served in Iraq and the 11 percent who fought in Afghanistan who have PTSD. The steps include instituting face-to-face sessions for returning troops, longer term post-deployment screening, and a "no wrong door" policy that offers veterans many entry points to access the VA mental health system. But more expansion is needed, Murphy said, to treat the ever-increasing number of veterans who need help. In the past three months, the VA has seen a 30 percent increase in PTSD diagnoses, she noted.

To perform its mental health function well, said Joy Ilem of the Disabled American Veterans, the VA system needs to be better funded and better integrated with community and follow-up care options, and the period of eligibility for VA services needs to be extended from two to five years.

Last year, I wrote of Stefanie Pelkey's struggle to make sense of her husband's suicide after returning from Iraq.

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