Twenty-one percent of Fort Lewis soldiers recently returned from Iraq were deemed "at risk" for post-traumatic stress disorder. Between 15 percent and 17 percent of all combat troops returning from Afghanistan or Iraq suffer from depression, anxiety or PTSD.
These brave men and women fight for our freedoms and we should support their mental health needs. Unfortunately, our national veterans outreach relies on unclear criteria for mental health referrals and on veterans seeking treatment on their own. Enhanced mental health screenings and outreach would help veterans get needed support.
The New England Journal of Medicine reported in 2004 that the stigma surrounding mental health care is the greatest barrier to veterans receiving proper treatment. Many soldiers fear mental health diagnoses could ruin their career. We can ease that stigma by requiring screenings with a mental health professional for all combat veterans rather than singling out troops from their peers.
Required screenings with mental health professionals would close gaps in the Defense Department's mental health outreach. Currently, returning service members complete surveys to identify those at risk for PTSD. The Government Accountability Office reports the department has no set criteria for referring at-risk veterans for additional care, refers little more than 20 percent of those veterans and does not track whether they receive care.
To address those shortfalls, I am working to ensure the 2007 National Defense Authorization Act requires more rigorous mental health screenings for returning service members.
During a recent Fort Lewis visit, I learned Washington state is a national leader in mental health outreach for returning troops, including reservists and National Guard members.
Fort Lewis' Soldier Wellness Assessment Pilot Program requires troops be assessed by a mental health specialist between 90 and 180 days after demobilization. At-risk veterans often begin to display signs of mental illness during this 90-day period. As many as 30 percent of SWAPP participants report potential problems for the first time.
Our state also exceeds national standards for mental health care for reservists and National Guard members. The state works with the VA, the Labor Department and state veterans service organizations to sponsor Family Days where veterans get mental health information. Forty-one percent of participants were referred to mental health professionals during 2005 and the first four months of 2006.
Puget Sound's VA network also provides additional mental health attention for veterans. The network's post-deployment clinic includes a one-hour appointment with a mental health professional. Those sessions can steer patients into other VA mental health programs.
Congress should expand Washington's military mental health programs to other parts of the country. To that end, I cosponsored HR 1588, the Comprehensive Assistance for Veterans Exposed to Traumatic Stressors Act of 2005. This broad legislation would, among other things, direct the VA to develop a demonstration project stationing VA psychologists and psychiatrists at major demobilization sites and military treatment facilities.
When the U.S. goes to war, we must be prepared to accept the full cost of that war. Our men and women often come home with physical and mental wounds that take years to heal. Regardless of our feelings about the current conflicts, we can agree that the U.S. should take care of her own, and that we should help the brave men and women return to healthy lives after their service. Veterans and their families deserve nothing less.