December 7, 2011
Thank you, Pam.
I want to thank Pam Hyde, our Administrator at the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, for that introduction and for the amazing work she does protecting and improving the mental health of millions of Americans.
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 service members, veterans, and their families.
Partnership is vital to achieving this goal. No single department or agency or state or community can tackle this problem on its own. So before I go any further, I want to acknowledge our partners who came together for this event, the National Association of State Mental Health Program Directors, the National Association of State Alcohol and Drug Abuse Directors and the National Council for Community Behavioral Healthcare.
I also want to thank our federal partners both in sponsoring this Academy and in supporting our returning warriors, the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Department of Defense. And I want to acknowledge their representatives who have taken time to join us today: Jessica Wright, the Acting Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Reserve Affairs, Brigadier General Kevin McNeely, Director of Strategic Plans and Policy for the National Guard Bureau and Dr. Toni Zeiss, from the Office of Mental Health Services at the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Today is the 70th anniversary of the attacks on Pearl Harbor that launched US involvement in World War II. Like me, I’m sure that many of you had parents and grandparents who fought bravely in that war. When those service men and women came home they rejoined families and neighbors who had all made sacrifices during wartime. They were greeted as heroes, and had a thankful nation and the GI Bill in hand to resume their lives and make up for lost time.
We did right by those veterans and we owe nothing less to today’s returning service members. Only 1 percent of Americans are fighting our wars, but it takes all of us to support those service members and their families.
This has been a priority of the Obama Administration from day one.
We have created policies, like tax credits, that help service members purchase homes once they’ve returned to their communities. First Lady Michelle Obama and Dr. Jill Biden have launched their “Joining Forces” initiative to support military families through employment opportunities, wellness programs and access to education for military connected children.
And in the last few weeks the President has made a series of announcements to benefit veterans including a major push to help service members find jobs when they get home. In fact our department has expanded opportunities for veterans with military medical training to transition to health care jobs back home. And we’ve challenged Community Health Centers to hire 8,000 veterans over the next three years.
But we owe these service members more than a job. We owe them the assistance they need to thrive in their communities. And today we know that there are gaping holes for veterans who need mental health and substance abuse services and supports.
Resources have been stretched thin, and we have all been trying our hardest to do right by these men and women, but the numbers tell us that we have a lot more work to do.
With longer deployments, more frequent redeployments and shorter breaks in between, stress has been constant for service members and their families in every branch, no matter where they served.
One study found that one in two troops say they’ve seen a friend wounded or killed. One in four say they’ve been thrown by an explosion.
It’s no surprise that one in five returning service members are diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder and that alcohol and prescription drug abuse rates have sky rocketed.
These factors mean that long after our men and women return from battle, they’re continuing to fight things like domestic violence, unemployment, homelessness and strained relationships.
These challenges can be even more severe for members of the National Guard and Reservists who step right from combat environments back into their communities.
These and other stress factors contribute to the fact that one in every five suicides in this country takes the life of a veteran.
Service members also struggle with the discrimination and lack of understanding directed toward individuals with mental illnesses and addictions.
There are some people who put mental illness and post-traumatic stress disorder in their own category. 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 behavioral health agency and say these diseases aren’t real. So we know we need to do more to make treatment an option.
That means making treatment more accessible and making sure no one falls through the cracks. Today, of the one in five returning service members with behavioral health problems, only about half actually seek help.
There are many reasons for this. There might not be a VA close by. Some people are reluctant to ask for help, because they might be embarrassed to tell their families or nervous that someone they know will see them at the VA or doctor’s office.
Some states have attacked these problems by providing the kind of coordinated services that can make it easier to get treatment. Over the last 3 years, 16 states, 2 territories and the District of Columbia have participated in this conference to do just that.
I faced many of these same issues as Governor of Kansas. As members of the Kansas National Guard returned home, we were stunned by several suicides. Our view was that one suicide was one too many.
I immediately began working closely with Major General Tod Bunting, who was then the adjutant general of the Kansas Army and Air National Guard, to address the mental health needs of our returning military men and women. General Bunting explained the urgency of the situation like this:
He told me that when a soldier is going to take his Bradley Tank into the field he runs a check on the vehicle. He does things like checking the treads, making sure the guns are operational, and making sure they have the correct ammo. And we would never send that machine into the field unless everything was right. But what General Bunting knew, was that we weren’t kicking the tires on our most valuable resource, the service men and women who make up our military.
Along with asking if an ankle or shoulder was feeling ok, we also needed to be asking about the state of mind of the person about to be deployed or about to go on a mission or returning home from combat. And we needed to give these men and women the tools to recognize the signs of distress and the opening to ask for help.
This approach led us to create the Kansas Resiliency Center. Built in partnership with a consortium of Kansas mental health professionals, researches from Walter Reed and the Israeli military, the Resiliency Center was a first of its kind institution, developing training tools to help Guardsmen and their families handle the challenges and adversity that comes before, during, and after deployment.
At the time that we were creating this Center, there were other states embarking on their own initiatives to improve access. We were able to listen and learn from one another. Those kinds of exchanges were vital to our success then and they are why we’re here this week.
In this administration and in our department, we don’t make any distinction between behavioral health and health. I know that all of you feel the same way. 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, and addictions is just as unacceptable as if we had thousands of service members walking around with open wounds.
So, the question 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?
Many of these service members will seek treatment through the Department of the Defense or the VA, which both provide terrific care.
But those unable to access care will rely on you. Often, their families do too, since having a parent or spouse in combat can often be just as traumatic.
I know this can be overwhelming for care providers too. Many of you are already stretched to your limits to meet the needs of your communities.
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.
That means working closely with the VA and DoD to reach veterans and their families with the care and services they deserve.
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 the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline number–which just received its 3 millionth call in September.
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 centralized VA call center that provides specialized crisis services. Since we’ve set up this system, the Veterans Crisis Line has helped nearly 90,000 veterans access crisis interventions that can save their lives. And we’ve helped hundreds of thousands friends or family of veterans and service members who are seeking information.
To give you another example, through an interagency agreement with the National Guard Bureau, SAMHSA now has a full time Counterdrug Liaison as a part of our Military Families Strategic initiative. That has put a person with unique knowledge of the substance abuse issues facing service members in a key position to help them get care.
And we continue to work across the Administration to improve training for health care providers who treat service members, reduce homelessness among veterans, prevent suicides, and increase prevention and early intervention efforts with our military families. Our goal is to ensure that our service men and women, our veterans, and their families receive the best behavioral health services the VA and community-based systems have to offer.
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 foreign lands, and put their lives on the line to protect ours. We owe them the same devotion.
We know that prevention works, treatment is effective, and 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.
I know that all of you here understand how important this work is. And I know you share President Obama’s passion for getting it right.
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, their families, and all Americans.