Op-Ed: Veterans, soldiers need more mental health support
The fatal shooting spree at the Fort Hood military base in Texas again focuses the nation on the crisis of inadequate mental health services for service members and veterans.
It's time for both the Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs to reach beyond their bureaucracies to address the crisis. The departments need to do more to expand mental health services with new alliances. That means partnering with local hospitals, universities, clinics, and not-for-profits on research, intervention, counseling and treatment.
We don't see this as a Democratic or Republican issue. It's not confined to this administration, the prior one or future ones. That's why we sponsored, and Congress passed, the bipartisan Israel-King Amendment in last year's defense appropriations bill to add $10 million for critical mental health services. We did this to give service members and veterans access to the care and treatments they need and deserve. Our amendment helped the Department of Defense establish public-private alliances with partners engaged in research, treatment, education and outreach on military mental health issues.
We've seen that this model works. In Bay Shore, the Unified Behavioral Health Center for Military Veterans and Their Families combines the Northport VA Medical Center with private health services provided by the North Shore-Long Island Jewish Health System. This creates a united front by joining Long Island's largest employer and its extensive health network with the VA and one of the largest veteran populations in the United States.
It means veterans, therapists and other medical professionals provide counseling under one roof and jointly decide the best treatments for veterans. And these treatments are extended to the families of veterans, as well, because the impact of war is felt not just by veterans, but also by their relatives, who need care and need to be able to identify the warning signs (including lack of interest, feelings of detachment and loss of appetite) that something is wrong.
We need to go even further. The federal government should leverage the talents and capabilities of America's local university hospitals to do research on and provide counseling to service members and veterans. Until now, they have been completely underutilized.
Every day, 22 veterans take their own lives. That's a suicide every 65 minutes, according to a VA study released last year based on the department's data from 1999 through 2011. Earlier this month, Spec. Ivan Lopez shot and killed three people and injured 16 more before committing suicide at the sprawling Army post in Texas.
When service members are in danger in battle, every resource and technology is deployed to save lives. The same commitment is needed to protect their mental health when they return home. We need to use an all-hands-on-deck approach with contributions from the medical community, advocacy groups, the private sector, teaching hospitals and veterans groups.
The shootings at Fort Hood -- the second in five years at the base -- should serve as yet another reminder that some service members are not receiving the care they need when they come home from a deployment or make the transition from military life to civilian life. Not until we extend and expand our approach to mental health will we have a real hope of preventing tragedies.
Rep. Steve Israel is a Democrat from Huntington, and Rep. Peter King is a Republican from Seaford.