Mental health group urges increased assistance for military, families

McClatchy NewspapersJune 28, 2012 

— A new report by the National Alliance on Mental Illness said the government needs to fill the gaps in mental health coverage for America’s soldiers and veterans, who – along with their families – face high rates of mental illness.

“Parity for Patriots,” released Thursday, focuses on holes in the mental health care system, as well as on military suicide, the stigma associated with such ailments and on the delay in implementing mental health parity legislation.

“Once the war is over, people tend to forget veterans’ needs,” said Bob Carolla, director of media relations at the alliance. “We want to make sure ongoing mental health needs aren’t forgotten.”

The National Alliance on Mental Illness, which advocates for services, treatment and research on mental health disorders, said that such disorders “affect one in five active-duty service members and are the most common cause of hospitalization.”

The rate also applies to military spouses and children, groups that the alliance said are often overlooked in mental health care treatment.

More than half of active-duty military members are married and 44 percent have children, the report said. About 76,000 service members are single parents, and in about 41,000 cases, both parents are in the military.

Of 776,000 children with active-duty parents, one-third with at least one parent deployed have faced psychological challenges, including depression and behavioral disorders, according to a study by the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine cited in the report. A study by the New England Journal of Medicine, also cited in the report, found that this rate intensifies with longer or multiple deployments.

Further, a separate study by the New England Journal of Medicine of more than 250,000 military spouses showed that more than a third of them were diagnosed with at least one mental disorder, the report said.

For service members and veterans, the report said the “hidden wounds” of war were equally disturbing: An active-duty service member commits suicide every 36 hours, the report said, and a veteran commits suicide every 80 minutes.

The report said mental health care services are available to soldiers and veterans from the Department of Defense both overseas and stateside, as well as from the Department of Veterans Affairs and the civilian health system. But navigating between the different systems is synonymous with navigating through “rocky terrain,” the report said.

Legislation from 2008 mandates that employer-sponsored group health insurance plans treat mental illness and substance abuse disorders the same way they treat medical disorders. But the report said successful implementation of the so-called “parity” law has been slow.

With service members, veterans and families fearful of retributions for requesting mental health care, timely treatment and equitable insurance coverage is vital, the report says.

The alliance urged the Pentagon and the VA to “eradicate barriers to mental health care and increase service capacity through use of technology and local care,” and it suggested steps necessary to do so.

Email: fmohamed@mcclatchydc.com

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