Returning Service Members, Veterans and their Families Policy Academy
June 7, 2010
Thank you, Pam, for that nice introduction. And thank you all for joining us today for our third Policy Academy on returning service members, veterans, and their families.
We hope these next couple of days will be an opportunity for you to learn from some of the experts we’ve brought here, to learn from each other, and to go back to your home states with some new tools and partnerships that can help you meet the mental health and substance abuse needs of our returning service members and their families.
Partnership is especially important. No single department or agency or state or community can tackle this problem on its own. So before I go any further, I also want to acknowledge our partners both in putting on this Academy and in supporting our returning warriors, the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Department of Defense.
I think everyone here understands the seriousness of the responsibility we share and the challenge we face. In the eight years since September 11, more than 2 million U.S. troops have deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan.
We also know that these wars have been different than other wars. There have been longer deployments, more frequent redeployments, and shorter breaks in between. Stress has been more constant. For some of our service members, every trip outside a base brings the risk of an ambush. Every night brings the possibility of another attack.
According to one report, one out of two troops says they have seen a friend wounded or killed. One out of three says they have smelled decomposing bodies. One out of four says they have been thrown by an explosion.
As a result, one in five returning service members is diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. We have less data on substance abuse, but there are anecdotal reports of high rates of prescription drug addiction among active service members.
Perhaps the most disturbing statistic is the suicide rate for active duty service men and women. Many veterans have significant problems with depression. But recently for the first time ever, the suicide rate for the Army rose above the national average and the rates in the Marine Corps are rapidly rising.
These are men and women who have taken great risks and made huge sacrifices to defend our country. They have left their families, traveled to strange lands, and put their lives on the line to protect ours. As President Obama has said many times, taking care of our troops is one of our country’s most sacred responsibilities, and I know everyone here agrees.
And I want to make one thing clear. There are some people who put mental illness and post-traumatic stress disorder in its own categories. There are quote-unquote “real” injuries, and then there are these other conditions, which are somehow less urgent or serious.
I’d challenge any of these people to spend a day at a VA hospital or a community mental health center and say these diseases aren’t real. In fact, mental health conditions are the second most frequently treated conditions in the VA system right after muscle and skeleton conditions.
In this administration and in our department, we don’t make any distinction between behavioral health and health. We believe we have a responsibility to care for the whole person. And having thousands of service members walking around with untreated depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, or addictions is just as unacceptable as if we had thousands of service members walking around with open wounds.
So now, the question for us is, how can we reach these service members and their families and how can we give them the support they need to live a healthy life?
Part of our challenge is that, of the one in five returning service members with behavioral health problems, only about half actually ask for it.
And actually the problem goes deeper since we know that even the service members who don’t have a mental illness or substance abuse disorder will often need help readjusting to life outside of a combat zone.
Many of these service members will seek treatment through the Department of the Defense or the VA, which both provide terrific care.
But they also rely on state and community resources. Sometimes veterans don’t have a VA facility in their area. National Guard members who don’t return to military bases may not have Defense Department facilities or TRICARE providers.
So they rely on you. Often, their families do too, since have a parent or spouse in combat can often be just as traumatic for those left behind as for those going to war.
I know this can be overwhelming for care providers too. Many of you are already stretched to your limits, using every worker and square foot to meet the needs of your communities.
Adding a whole new population of clients with challenging needs isn’t easy – especially when you’re working alone.
That’s why we’re here today.
The job of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, which we call SAMHSA for short, is to work with partners in Federal, State, local, and tribal governments as well as with community groups across the country to make sure they have the information, resources, and partnerships they need to do their job.
I’ll give you one example of the kind of collaboration I hope can come out of this Policy Academy. As part of our general work to help Americans with behavioral health issues, SAMHSA operates a Suicide Prevention lifeline number–which just received its 2 millionth call last week.
Knowing that veterans are especially at risk, we’ve worked in partnership with the VA to enhance the hotline so that you can press “1’ to be connected to a VA call center that provides specialized crisis services. Since we’ve set up this system, the VA call center has received more than 250,000 calls and saved more than 8,000 lives. And I want to acknowledge Dr. Janet Kemp, the VA’s National Suicide Prevention Coordinator, who does a terrific job and who’s here today.
To give you another example, we’ve recently signed an agreement with the National Guard to work together to coordinate all the agencies and organizations that provide behavioral health services and benefits for National Guard members. By sharing data among these groups and between these groups and the National Guard, we’ll be able to understand where we’re doing well and where we need to do better.
Just last Friday, Administrator Hyde met with Under Secretary Petzel of the VA to begin the process of establishing a memorandum of understanding to strengthen collaboration on data sharing, reducing homelessness among veterans, suicide prevention, and on prevention and early intervention efforts with our military families. Our goal is to ensure that our service men and women and their families receive the best behavioral health services the VA and community-based systems have to offer.
We know that prevention works, that treatment is effective, and that people do recover. We have the tools we need to fulfill our responsibility to our returning troops. We just need to work together to make sure we use those tools most effectively.
As I mentioned earlier, this is the third time we’ve hosted an event like this one. At the last Policy Academy, nine states and one territory participated. Since then, all ten of them have expanded the work they do on behalf of service members, veterans, and their families.
We hope that our discussion over the next two days will lead to the same kinds of gains.
So thank you all for being here today. I hope you have a productive couple of days. And I look forward to working with all of you in the months and years to come to provide high-quality behavioral health services for our service members, veterans, and all Americans.