Pentagon, VA Team Up to Improve Mental Health Care

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Through the first-of-its kind joint mental health summit, officials of both departments hope to gain a broader, national perspective of the care servicemembers, veterans and their families need to overcome the emotional wounds of war, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said.

"Beyond waging the wars we're in, treatment of our wounded -- their continuing care and eventual reintegration into everyday life -- is my highest priority," Gates said. "I consider this a solemn pact between those who have risked and suffered and the nation that owes them its eternal gratitude."

Gates' remarks comes less than a week after President Barack Obama signed the Veterans Healthcare Reform and Transparency Act, which improves the way VA receives health care funding.

"The attention being paid to mental health issues is so important, because in the past, unseen injuries such as post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injury were not accorded the full attention they deserved," he said.

Gates noted that such conditions have been "around as long as war itself." But repeated deployments since Sept. 11, 2001 to Iraq and Afghanistan have brought new focus to these illnesses, he added.

More than 6,000 current servicemembers, according to recent studies, are potentially affected with post-traumatic stress, traumatic brain injury or similar conditions, Gates said, noting some of the signs of such circumstances.

"Some of the signs are apparent ? severe depression, or even suicide," he said. "Others are more elusive and sometimes ill-defined, arriving in the form of nightmares, anxiety or unexplained and uncontrollable anger. Other acts, seemingly unrelated, bear this enemy's indelible fingerprints: petty thefts, fights, spousal abuse, drug or alcohol abuse.

"Today, it is all too clear that TBI, post-traumatic stress, and numerous other related mental ailments are widespread, entrenched and insidious," he continued.

Defense officials have gradually realized that care for psychological wounds must have the same focus, initiative and standards as the care for physical injuries, Gates said, noting the past two years have seen significant improvements in mental health care.

About $3.3 billion of the fiscal 2010 defense budget is allotted to meet those needs. Gates cited that this year alone, the department has increased its numbers of case managers and mental health providers, developed a new disability evaluation system with VA, established a dozen more Army Warrior in Transition complexes and pursued a number of other initiatives to improve the quality of life for psychologically wounded troops.

The Army, which has seen a steady increase in soldier suicides in the past four years, "is putting renewed emphasis" on leader responsibilities in noticing the signs of psychological stress, Gates noted. The Army began a five-year partnership this year with the National Institute of Mental Health, which is considered the largest study of suicide ever embarked upon.

"These [initiatives] include early recognition of warning signals and intervention in the hope of preventing the kinds of tragedies that have destroyed careers, families and lives," he said. "This military research and activity on psychological stress may have positive ramifications for society at large for understanding and treating the effects of traumatic events on civilians who suffer from accidents, natural disasters, personal tragedies or crime."

Positive steps have been made, but more must be done, Gates said. He said the Defense Department and VA must continue defining roles and responsibilities and keep searching for better ways to share information.

Gates noted that the eight years of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan constitute the longest war America has fought with an all-volunteer force. Retention goals continue to be met and troops and their families have shown "remarkable resilience," Gates said, but he added there's no telling how long that trend could last.

"We don't know the limits of their endurance and the consequences once those limits have passed," he said. "The humbling fact remains that there is so much we still don't know about post-traumatic stress and other psychological problems.

"This reality makes it imperative that we continue the work that has already begun," he continued. "The military medical community, the Defense Department and the Department of Veterans Affairs, is supremely dedicated to this issue."

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