WASHINGTON – Many Iraq war soldiers, veterans and their families are not getting needed psychological help because a stressed military's mental health system is overwhelmed and understaffed, a task force of psychologists found.
The panel's 67-page report calls for the immediate strengthening of the military mental health system. It cites a 40 percent vacancy rate in active duty psychologists in the Army and Navy, resources diverted from family counselors and a weak transition for veterans leaving the military.
The findings were released Sunday by the American Psychological Association.
More than three out of 10 soldiers met the criteria for a "mental disorder," but far less than half of those in need sought help, the report found. Sometimes that's because of the stigma of having mental health problems, other times the help simply wasn't available, according to the task force. And there are special difficulties in getting help to National Guard and Reserve troops, who have been used heavily in Iraq, the report said.
The special task force found no evidence of a "well-coordinated or well-disseminated approach to providing behavioral health care to service members and their families."
The psychology task force, chaired by an active military psychologist and comprised of psychologists working for the military or Veterans Administration, said "relatively few high-quality" mental health programs exist in the military now.
"There are tremendous needs; the system is stressed by these needs," said pediatric psychologist Jeanne Hoffman, a task force member and a civilian pediatric psychologist at Tripler Army Medical Center in Honolulu.
The Defense Department's mental health experts hadn't read the report. Pentagon spokeswoman Cynthia Smith said the military is proud of its mental health services record, including a new program this year that checks up on service members after they return home to their families.
"For the past four years, DOD has been aggressively reaching out to support our military personnel before and after deployments. This is unprecedented," Smith said in an e-mail to The Associated Press. "We have assessed the health, including the mental health of more than 1 million service members before and after deployments. We have worked with their families and others to address mental health concerns associated with deployments and with war."
One of the major problems is that four out of 10 "active duty licensed clinical psychologist" slots in the Army and Navy are not filled, a problem worsened by the dire need to send mental health experts into war zones, the report said.
That high vacancy rate has several side effects. One is that the psychologists left are overwhelmed, the report said. It found that one-third of Army mental health personnel reported "high burn out" and 27 percent reported "low motivation for their work."
Because of the shortage, there are even fewer stateside therapists to help families of those deployed and to help returning soldiers readjust, the report found.
Hoffman, the pediatric psychologist, said she's seen children regress on toilet training, have severe headaches, stomach pains, and suffer in school because of the stress of having a parent deployed.
And for soldiers and veterans returning home, only 10 to 20 percent of the military's mental health experts are trained to help those with post-traumatic stress disorder, the report found.
"I know guys that are waiting for appointments," said Russell Terry, chief executive officer of the Iraq War Veterans Organization. "I know guys who are dealing with doctors who have no concept of PTSD."
Terry was on the phone with an Iraq war veteran last year when the vet killed himself.
Report co-chair Michelle Sherman, a psychologist at the Veterans Administration Medical Center in Oklahoma City, said the military and VA are "working very hard to meet the needs" of those returning from Iraq.
At VA headquarters, Antonette Zeiss, deputy chief consultant in the agency's office of mental health services, said the report "misses the mark by quite a way." She said her agency didn't have "an opportunity to present data (to the panel) about what the VA is really doing."
Sherman said the panel did seek data from the VA, but when asked if the agency provided information to the psychologists' panel, she said: "I'm not supposed to answer that question."
Zeiss said the VA has been increasing spending on mental health services yearly, opening new centers and hiring more psychological professionals.
"We have the strongest mental health system in the country and we are making it stronger," she said.
But veterans groups disagree.
"The system as it exists today ignores the readjustment needs specific to Iraq and Afghanistan service members," Veterans for America President Bobby Muller said in a statement. "We have to stop throwing money at a problem that requires a complete overhaul. The system is broken."