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More than half Iraq, Afghanistan vets treated for psychological problems

Mental health staffing doubled in war zones

This story was originally published by ProPublica.

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More than half of all Iraq and Afghanistan veterans treated in Department of Veterans Affairs hospitals since 2002 have been diagnosed, at least preliminarily, with mental health problems, according to statistics obtained by the advocacy group Veterans for Common Sense.

The data, which is released quarterly, also shows that the raw number of returning soldiers with psychological problems is rising. Nearly 18,000 new patients were treated for mental health issues at VA facilities in the last three months of last year—the most recent time period for which data is available— upping the total to more than 330,000.

The latest numbers confirm a trend that has intensified over the last several years. Paul Sullivan, the executive director of Veterans for Common Sense, said that when the organization first began to collect the data in late 2004, only 20 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans in VA hospitals had been diagnosed with mental problems.

The increase should come as no surprise given that a recent military survey, obtained by ProPublica and other media outlets, shows that U.S. troops in Afghanistan are currently reporting lower morale and greater emotional strain than at any other time in the last five years.

That report notes that mental health staffing has doubled in war zones in order to ensure treatment is available immediately for soldiers who suffer psychological trauma.

Sullivan applauded the increase in staff abroad, but questioned what’s being done to make sure that troubled troops are properly cared for once they come home.

“We truly support having more doctors in war zones, that’s great,” Sullivan said. “But we also need to make sure we have enough doctors here.”

Laurie Tranter, a spokeswoman for the VA, told ProPublica that the agency has increased the number of mental health staff in the U.S. by more than 40 percent since 2002 to more than 20,000. Tranter suggested that the increase in veterans diagnosed with and treated for mental health problems may, in part, reflect more proactive screening and better access to services.

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Pressure is mounting on the military and the VA to fix long-standing shortfalls in mental health care.

A federal appeals court issued a scathing opinion of the VA’s system Wednesday, noting that it takes an average of four years for veterans to receive mental health benefits, a beleaguered process that demands immediate reform.

Writing for a three-judge panel, Judge Stephen Reinhart said, “Although the VA is obligated to provide veterans mental health services, many veterans with severe depression or post-traumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”) are forced to wait weeks for mental health referrals. … For those who commit suicide in the interim, care does not come soon enough.”

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Traumatic brain injuries have been called the 'signature wound' of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. While improvements in armor and battlefield medicine mean more soldiers are surviving bomb blasts that would have killed them in previous wars, the explosions are leaving some of them with permanent wounds. Mild traumatic brain injuries are difficult to detect as they leave behind no obvious signs of trauma. While many soldiers recover fully from the injury, others are left with persistent mental and physical problems.

Sources: Interviews with Dr. Ibolja Cernak, M.D., M.E., Ph.D., of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory and Dr. Michael R. Yochelson, M.D., of the National Rehabilitation Hospital; "Traumatic Brain Injury: An Overview of Pathobiology With Emphasis on Military Populations" by Ibolja Cernak and Linda J. Noble-Haeusslein in the Journal of Cerebral Blood Flow & Metabolism; brainline.org; Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center