WASHINGTON – The military is putting already-strained troops at greater risk of mental health problems because of repeated deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, a Pentagon panel said Thursday in warning of an overburdened health system.
Issuing an urgent warning, the Defense Department's Task Force on Mental Health chaired by Navy Surgeon General Donald Arthur said more than one-third of troops and veterans currently suffer from problems such as traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder.
With an escalating Iraq war, those numbers are expected to worsen, and current staffing and money for military health care won't be able to meet the need, the group said in a preliminary report released Thursday.
"The system of care for psychological health that has evolved in recent decades is not sufficient to meet the needs of today's forces and their beneficiaries, and will not be sufficient to meet the needs in the future," the 14-member group says.
Branding Pentagon policies overly conservative and out-of-date, the task force called for more money and a fundamental shift in treatment to focus on prevention and screening — rather than simply relying on soldiers to come forward on their own.
It cited a significant stigma in which soldiers believe they would be ridiculed or their careers damaged if they were to acknowledge having problems.
The four-page summary of findings, which will be incorporated in a final report to Defense Secretary Robert Gates in June, comes amid renewed attention on troop and veterans care following recent disclosures of shoddy outpatient treatment at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
The task force found 38 percent of soldiers and 31 percent of Marines report psychological concerns such as traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder after returning from deployment.
Among members of the National Guard, the figure is much higher — 49 percent — with numbers expected to grow because of repeated deployments.
In recent weeks, several U.S. senators have pointed to problems in the Pentagon and Department of Veterans Affairs' mental health care, citing the Army's Fort Carson in Colorado where some troops have said their pleas for mental health care went unanswered or were met with ridicule.
In its report, the task force — which visited 38 military bases in the four armed services within the past year — underscored many of the lawmakers' fears. Without citing specific examples, it said soldiers too often don't seek the care they need.
Care for family members also needed improvement, the report said.
Many base mental health programs have had to limit their practices to active-duty military, shutting family members out or forcing them to try to access civilian providers through the cooperative program known as Tricare. But in many places, the list of Tricare providers is small, inadequate or even incorrect.
Both the VA and the Pentagon in recent weeks have acknowledged a need to improve mental health treatment. Jan Kemp, a VA associate director for education who works on mental health, has estimated there are up to 1,000 suicides a year among veterans within the VA system, and as many as 5,000 a year among all living veterans.
A recent investigation by the Government Accountability Office found that just 22 percent of U.S. troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan who showed signs of PTSD were being referred by Pentagon health care providers for mental health evaluation, citing inconsistent and subjective standards in determining when treatment was needed.