Building on Momentum to Improve Mental Health Services for Nation’s Veterans
In the movie, “American Sniper,” we learn of the complexity of the invisible injuries of war U.S. Navy SEAL Chris Kyle experienced. What weighed on his conscience is that he couldn’t save more of the troops with whom he served. After taking time to understand what bothered him, his Department of Veterans Affairs doctor realized that helping other veterans would be therapeutic for Kyle.
The VA needs the tools and flexibility to find what works for all veterans living with mental illness, like it was able to do for Kyle, in order to reverse the suicide epidemic.
Since 9/11, more veterans have died of suicide than in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Congress took necessary steps to address some of the prevalent problems of the VA mental health system by passing the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act.
While this is an important first step, it will not solve all the hurdles our veterans face to gaining mental health care access and treatment. We need to identify and address other possible contributing factors to our veteran suicide rate, one of which is the overprescribing of drugs and medicines. The VA created an environment of dependency on opioids and other medications, leading to addiction and in some cases — death. A 2012 Army report found that 29 percent of suicides involved individuals with a known history of using medication to treat symptoms of mental disorders.
In 2013, the VA launched the Opioid Safety Initiative to reform its prescription culture. We have seen success with this program, but the problem persists. Last month, the VA dismissed its Tomah, Wisc. medical center’s chief of staff, psychiatrist David Houlihan, who earned the nickname, “Candy Man” among some of his patients because of his widespread distribution of opiates.
The VA needs to update how it prescribes drugs and create a connected network of pharmacies to protect against abuses, as well as provide our veterans with only the prescribed dosage of medication. Nationwide pharmacies have a system in place to prevent over filling prescriptions. It’s time for the VA to adopt a similar system.
The idea medications and drugs are the best way to treat mental health issues is outdated.
Kyle found success with his alternative-therapy program. Other veterans have experienced similar benefits with therapies that involve animals, outdoor activities, art and meditation. We must allow the VA the flexibility to treat veterans using a holistic approach. We need to make sure the VA takes the time to talk with patients to identify the best treatment available. What works for one veteran may not work for another.
My colleagues and I on the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee are working to fully understand the scope of mental illness in our veteran community. Medications and drugs may have a place in treatment but these are only temporary band-aids for most veterans. I expect we will make additional updates to the VA mental health system that will allow our veterans to get the treatment they need and deserve, while continuing to lead a full and meaningful life.
Sen. John Boozman is a Republican from Arkansas.