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Sunday, November 01, 2009

Coverage of the First Joint DoD/VA National Mental Health Summit

A selection of press clipping on this past week's watershed conference, and, in extended, you can view Gates' and Shinseki's opening statements in full. First up, Thom Shanker, New York Times At War: Notes From the Front Lines:

In his most extensive comments on mental health challenges facing American forces fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said Monday that many military personnel fear a stigma if they seek help for psychological injuries.

And he criticized a government and military bureaucracy that is “frustrating, adversarial and unnecessarily complex” — even for those who actively seek assistance.

The critique was delivered by Mr. Gates as the keynote address during a “Mental Health Summit” convened by Eric K. Shinseki, the secretary of Veterans Affairs who previously served as Army chief of staff.

The two secretaries have pledged that the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs would improve how they share information so that the delivery of benefits could be streamlined, even as both acknowledged that the two current, long wars have brought attention to the types of invisible injuries often ignored in the past.

The fighting in Afghanistan now has surpassed the length of the Revolutionary War by about three weeks, Mr. Gates noted, making it the longest conflict in the nation’s history fought with an all-volunteer force.

In educational interest, article(s) quoted from extensively.

Kimberly Hefling, AP:

Gates spoke at a mental health summit with Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki. By appearing publicly together, they sought to reinforce their commitment to tackling veterans' health issues and the stigma associated with seeking mental health care.

Earlier this year, they pledged with President Barack Obama to create a system that would make it easier for the Pentagon and VA to exchange information so there is less of a wait for veterans to get disability benefits. The VA is struggling with a backlogged disability claims system with hundreds of thousands of claims that need to be processed.

Among U.S. troops who have fought in the recent wars, Gates says brain injuries and mental health ailments are "widespread, entrenched and insidious." He noted that a RAND Corp. study last year estimated that there could be more than 600,000 service members with traumatic brain injuries or mental health issues.

Gates said there have been positive changes such as the doubling of the budget for mental health and traumatic brain injuries to almost $1.2 billion from last year, but other challenges remain such as filling a shortage of therapists in and near military installations.

About 2 million troops have fought in the recent wars. Tens of thousands have been physically injured, while hundreds of thousands have entered the VA's health care system.

Shinseki said veterans from the recent wars are coming homes with "invisible wounds" that are just as debilitating as physical traumas sustained on the battlefield.

"Who's vulnerable? Everyone," Shinseki said. "Warriors suffer emotional injuries as much as they do physical ones."

An eloquent post by Brandon Friedman, the VA's Director of New Media, regarding this week's events at the summit:

When troops leave the active military after service in Iraq and Afghanistan, many find themselves lost in a blur of reality shows and superficiality—in a world where nothing explodes but tempers, and in a place where the rush of combat is soon dulled by the slow drip of alcohol. The symptoms of most Veterans might not be so pronounced, but there’s always someone living through this.

For my part, when I returned home in 2004, I sympathized with Martin Sheen in the opening scene of Apocalypse Now—though, in my case, I made post-combat stress look way less cool. And while I never punched a mirror, I learned quickly that I wasn’t immune from the foundation-shaking effects that war can have on the mind.

The problem of post-traumatic stress is new for neither Veterans, nor for the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs. However—from “soldier’s heart” after the Civil War to “shell shock” to “combat fatigue”—the services have typically handled PTSD only to the point that it doesn’t boil over into a major social or political problem. And while that’s been good enough for many, it hasn’t been good enough for America’s combat Veterans.

However, that’s why DoD and VA are now coming together to not only seek practical solutions to mental injuries, but to de-stigmatize them as well. This week, for the first time, the departments are holding a joint national summit meant to harness “the programs, resources and expertise of both departments to deal with the aftermath of the battlefield.”

In his opening remarks at the event, VA Secretary Eric Shinseki noted that “as a provider of mental health services, VA is challenging all of our assumptions about mental health care. We are undergoing a fundamental and comprehensive review of our programs to see that our approaches are Veteran-centric, uniform, and accessible.” But, he continued, “VA does not operate in a vacuum. Our collaboration with DoD is mission-critical because we share the same clients—the same population—at different stages in their lives. There can be no ‘seamless transition’ or ‘continuum of care’ without serious and high-quality collaboration between both departments.”

And that collaboration, according to Defense Secretary Robert Gates is something that has, thus far been lacking.

As a Veteran myself, of course, I’m happy to see these steps being taken and I’ve been happy to attend. But much work remains to be done in terms of turning the dialogue at the summit into real change. I’m confident, however, that we’re now at a point where that can happen—primarily because both Secretaries understand that such change much start at the top with leaders who are willing to set the example.

Because, in reality, for the ideas from this summit filter down through the ranks, troops must be made to feel comfortable talking about and seeking assistance for these injuries. And if a company commander or a squad leader says it’s okay, then a young PFC coming off his or her first deployment, will be more at ease. And it is there—in the heart of military culture—where the real solution lies. Because, ultimately, it is those in uniform who will change the way America—and its military class—views mental injuries sustained in combat.

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

An online feedback form has been set up to capture suggestions to improve upon the issues raised at the summit.

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