Seeing a recent increase in suicides by military veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, Texas lawmakers are looking for ways to address mental health challenges faced by soldiers as they come back to the state.
"With so many of our own becoming veterans, it's going to be an ongoing issue," state Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, said Tuesday at a hearing of the House Defense and Veterans Affairs Committee. At the same time, he recognized that various mental health professionals are already looking at approaches — including peer networks and changing cultural attitudes — to reduce the circumstances that lead to the deteriorating of soldiers’ mental health.
Studies by the U.S. military have shown an 80 percent increase in suicides since the start of the war in Iraq in 2003. According to testimony by Lt. Col. Alba Villanueva, the director of joint family support services for the Texas Military Forces, which includes the Texas National Guard, there have been 15 suicides among Texas soldiers in the last three years, and two in the last 30 days.
Suicides and the mental health problems that lead to them are often a matter of untreated post-traumatic stress disorder and the lingering effects of military training. The branches of the U.S. military, said Sean Hanna, statewide coordinator for the Military Veteran Peer Network, "have absolutely perfected the human conditioning program. They take people from all over the country and get them to think one way, look one way, and act on orders without questioning them, because that's how you survive in the battlefield."
When the soldiers come home, he added, they don't find "a relevant program that undoes some of that," and so they may not take the personal initiative to seek help.
Nevertheless, Villanueva told lawmakers, soldiers are getting better at recognizing the mental health problems that can lead to suicide. September was Suicide Prevention Month, and Villanueva believes there are reasons for optimism. "Our soldiers are seeing it before it reaches a final conclusion,” she said. “Our soldiers are finally feeling comfortable saying something about their concerns or their thoughts of suicide."
But the mental health problems that persist, others said, are serious even if returning soldiers are far from thoughts of suicide. "Sometimes the problems aren't surfacing for three or four months, whether it’s drugs or the criminal justice system,” said Rep. Dan Flynn, R-Canton, explaining that returning soldiers do not want to seek mental health treatment because they just want to get on with their lives.
“When they come home, they want to go home, they don't want to be involved with the system,” he said. “We're going to have to figure out some way to close that gap.”
Mental health problems often stem from the process of reintegrating into civilian life, Hanna said, adding that "it's not until they begin to enact their plan for what their life will look like that they start to face these struggles."
Hanna said the problem can be addressed by “more boots on the ground” — more funding for hired professionals to coordinate peer networks of veterans, because he says many returning soldiers will only seek help if they get advice from other veterans, and in rural areas of the state other veterans may not be nearby.
Although there are hotlines that veterans can call, they do not always seek help even when they need it. It’s a problem of trust, he said. “That's one of the biggest problems with the veteran community. We don’t trust a lot,” he said. “That's one of the first things we lose in combat."
The goal during the next legislative session, said Pickett, the committee’s chairman, will be to present related funding increases as a savings for the state, rather than an expense, because additional peer networks may address mental health before a veteran ends up in jail or in a drug treatment program. "Perhaps we can find a way to present it," he said, "where the benefit will outweigh the cost."
Nearly everyone who testified Tuesday said that the real challenge would be addressing the stigma attached to mental health issues for veterans. “They don't feel like a veteran in crisis,” Hanna said. “They feel like a father in failure, or a mother in failure."
Texas lawmakers noted that they are not the only ones looking at the problem, and that it is increasingly a national issue. When the July numbers initially came out, Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, vice chief of staff of the Army, said in a statement, “Ultimately, we want the mindset across our force and society at large to be that behavioral health is a routine part of what we do and who we are as we strive to maintain our own physical and mental wellness.”
"We are fighting the shame and stigma that comes with having mental health problems," explained Sam Shore, director of the Mental Health Transformation Program at the Department of State Health Services. “It’s pervasive, whether you're a veteran or not.”