Returning Veterans Face Many Mental Health Risks

Rao photo

Care for Your Mind acknowledges and appreciates the collaboration of the National Network of Depression Centers in developing this series.

Returning Veterans Face Many Mental Health Risks—We Need More Resources to Help Them
Sanjai Rao, M.D., VA Medical Center, San Diego

Of the 1.7 million Veterans returning from Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) and Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF), an estimated 30% are suffering from mental health issues. That’s hundreds of thousands of individuals in need of psychological care and, for those of us who work in Veterans Affairs (VA), it’s our responsibility to provide it.

I’m a psychiatrist at the VA Medical Center in San Diego, one of the busiest VA facilities in the country. San Diego has the largest population of returning Veterans of any city and we provide mental health care for thousands of them each year.

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Congress Shines a Spotlight on the Value of Peer Specialists

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Several years after the end of the U.S. Civil War, Decoration Day was established by a group of Union Veterans who planted flowers on the graves of Union soldiers. In that same year a ceremony was held at what is now Arlington National Cemetery. Flowers were distributed on the graves of both Union and Confederate soldiers.

These ceremonies honoring fallen service members eventually became the modern Memorial Day. Though, many people believe that Memorial Day is a day to honor only active-duty service members who died on the battlefield, it is broader than that. There is no limitation on where that battlefield is or what it looks like: service members and Veterans continue to fight life-threatening battles every day right here on U.S. soil.

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How Communities Can Fund Mental Health Services

Funding local mental health and substance use disorder programs and services is an ongoing challenge. Although the federal government allocates money to support mental health care in the states, federal spending on public health has been eroded through funding cuts and budget caps. State governments haven’t done any better. However, over the past couple of decades, state legislatures have been empowering counties and municipalities to create their own revenue, whether through a local sales tax or property tax.

Sales tax in Washington State
Like many other counties in Washington State, Snohomish County adopted a 1/10th of 1% sales tax to support mental health and substance use disorders services. Since 2010, these funds have been used to support a range of direct and wrap-around services for six target populations: youth, families with children, veterans and their families, the aging population, the most vulnerable, and the most costly (i.e., high utilizers).

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A Success Story from Snohomish County

Families for Depression Awareness

In the post above, we used the example of Snohomish County, Washington, of using a designated sales tax to fund mental health services. Here is an example of how funds are used and how they made the difference in one case.

Among many programs, the Snohomish County sales tax funds the Student Support Advocate Program, which provides “intensive case management services to at-risk middle and high school students to connect and engage students and their families with needed resources (mental health and substance use disorder treatment, housing resources and homeless prevention services, food and other basic needs, etc.).” In 2015, the results included the following:

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