Wounded veterans still struggle to access mental health support: survey

Despite already receiving benefits for other injuries, a majority of veterans working with the Wounded Warrior Project aren’t sure where to access mental health services to help with issues like depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts, according to a new survey by the organization.

Nearly 88 percent of the individuals who took part in the advocacy group’s annual survey have used Veterans Affairs health care in the past, and 93 percent of the group have a disability rating of 70 percent or more, making them eligible for a host of Veterans Affairs assistance.

However, nearly 60 percent of WWP members surveyed said they were unsure what professional mental health care options were available to them, and 66 percent said they would be “embarrassed or ashamed” to use those services.

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The report, which had nearly 18,000 respondents, also underscores the danger of the disconnect between those veterans’ needs and their access to those services.

Roughly one in five veterans surveyed said they had suicidal thoughts within the last year, and about one in seven said they had those thoughts of self-harm in the last two weeks.

“Mental health continues to be a critical concern for this population of post-9/11 injured warriors,” said Dr. Melanie Mousseau, vice president of program operations for Wounded Warrior Project.

Because the survey is restricted only to WWP members, it is not necessarily reflective of the entire Iraq and Afghanistan War population or all injured veterans.

However, officials said the findings do reflect trends within the group’s 152,000 members, hinting at obstacles facing disabled veterans throughout the country.

“Our resources need to be targeted on the most impactful efforts, so we need to know where the biggest challenges are,” said Jennifer Silva, chief program officer for WWP. “We want to be a partner to everybody who wants to support veterans, whether it’s lawmakers, VA, corporations. And having this data in efforts like this is really important for that.”

Mental health and suicide prevention have been a major focus of VA programming in recent years, but have been with mixed results. Veterans groups have praised the work, but about 17 veterans a day die by suicide, a number that has remained largely constant over the last decade.

Among those surveyed, 78 percent reported having persistent sleep problems, 75 percent reported having symptoms of post-traumatic stress, and 74 percent reported struggles with depression.

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In addition, 98 percent reported some form of toxic exposure during their time in the military, with about 70 percent identifying burn pits as the source.

Despite that, only about 16 percent said they have filed a disability claim related to injuries for toxic exposure, and only about 5 percent said they have been granted a service connection for those health issues.

About 83 percent of those surveyed said they feel like civilian peers respect their military service, but only 10 percent said they believed those civilians understood the sacrifices and stress of life in the military.

Officials said they plan to use the findings to better target upcoming program offerings to veterans needs. The full results of the survey are available on the WWP web site.

Veterans experiencing a mental health emergency can contact the Veteran Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255 and select option 1 for a VA staffer. Veterans, troops or their family members can also text 838255 or visit VeteransCrisisLine.net for assistance

Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, DC since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.

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