Despite VA Benefits and Disability Coverage, Jennifer Struggles to Get the Care She Needs

Although Jennifer remembers “just not feeling right” in high school and telling a teacher that she wanted to die, she wasn’t diagnosed with major depression until she was nearly 30. An unrelated medical disability required her release from the Navy, and a car accident shortly thereafter further complicated Jennifer’s physical health and depression. In constant pain, she often wondered if her life would ever get better. At a couple of dark points, the possibility of taking her life became a concern. Jennifer sought emergency help at the VA and was hospitalized in the psychiatric ward.

“I was the only female up there,” Jennifer recalls. She describes the situation as “scary” for a woman, grouped with men whose issues run the gamut from alcohol abuse to serious mental illness. For those in the VA hospital’s psychiatric ward, she says, “They don’t have separate treatment.”

Over the years, with the aid of medications and routine therapy, Jennifer learned to manage her depression and began living a productive life. She also learned to recognize when she needs more help. Changing medication or dosage works for her, but the VA’s help is limited. Jennifer’s treatment plan includes psychiatrist and therapist visits just once every three months.

In the spring of 2011, Jennifer’s symptoms resurfaced. “I was spiraling,” she says. “It’s like being at the top of a tornado, and I can feel myself whirling, going downward.” She immediately sought help, but the VA couldn’t provide her with an appointment sooner. She briefly spoke to her therapist, who recommended a drastic move. Desperate for help, and seemingly out of options, Jennifer took desperate measures. She showed up at the emergency department, threatening to take her life.

The five-day hospitalization greatly disrupted Jennifer’s life. Ramping up her symptoms and verbalizing a phony suicide plan further distressed her. She was forced to compromise her values just to get help. “I had to tell one lie after another in order for it to be believable,” she says. “I expounded upon my depressive feelings so that they would change or increase my medication.”

During this latest hospitalization, Jennifer was glad to see more therapy and classes offered for in-patients. She wonders if private care might be better, and whether she could have avoided hospitalization entirely with private help. But Jennifer is classified as 100% disabled, and her Social Security disability income doesn’t go far. The additional cost of Medicare Part A to cover any private care is just too expensive.

“I haven’t been back in the hospital since,” she says.  Having resumed her quarterly treatment plan, Jennifer is hopeful her new medications will allow her to continue serving children through her volunteer work with Kentucky’s Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA). “I call them my kids,” she says of the minors in foster care she makes sure are in good situations. “I’m making a difference.”

Jennifer is active in National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI) and encourages others to get involved by participating in its speaking program. Speakers receive a small stipend, but that doesn’t compare to what Jennifer considers the real earnings: creating awareness about mental health and shaping attitudes. “Mental illnesses are just like any other illnesses. Like high blood pressure, heart diseases, anything. We also help put a face on mental illness so people don’t just see the negative ones that are on TV.”

Your Turn

  • Jennifer had these experiences a few years ago. How would her experience be different today? How is the VA addressing the mental health needs of women Veterans?
  • Sometimes people have to exaggerate their mental health condition in order to receive services. What has been your experience with this issue? How does this deception affect the person living with the mood disorder? How does this obstacle affect the mental health care system?
  • What experiences have you or someone you know had with getting care through the VA? What went well, and what could be improved?

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