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A “Band-Aid Treatment” for War Vets’ Mental Health Issues

October 12, 2012

A little over a month ago, President Obama acknowledged the growing problem of mental health in the country’s war veterans by signing an executive order which New York Times writer Lawrence Downes described as one that would “improve mental health care for service members and veterans.” First of all, I really would like to commend the government’s recognition of this issue. Since so many veterans and current service members are becoming psychologically distressed for their country, I feel it is only right that their country not only acknowledge it but try and help. Therefore, I feel like the mere existence of such an order coming not from a state or local level but directly from the federal level is a step towards the right direction. With that in mind, however, I’d like to unpack parts of the executive order a little more.

Downes says that this executive order can improve mental health care through “more hiring of mental-health professionals, a national suicide-prevention campaign, and a review of existing mental-health and addiction-treatment programs to identify and expand the programs that work well.” The government is trying to help those who need help. Sounds good enough. From a sociological and social justice perspective, however, I’d like to point out that the government is merely offering what I would call a “band aid” treatment for the issue and not a cure. If it were a cure, this executive order would respond to the fact that length of combat is the best predictor of mental health issues in service members (lecture) and would therefore get at the root cause of the problem (possibly by issuing shorter deployment times). This “band aid” treatment, however simply deals with the consequences of combat which not only seems counter intuitive, but costlier as well.

Another aspect of this article I’d like to point out did seem to speak from a sociological point of view. The executive order in question will increase the Veteran’s Affair’s (V.A.) crisis line capacity by 50% in order for veterans to receive professional help within 24 hours. This directly addresses Mitt Romney’s quote in the article saying that “veterans face unconscionable waits for mental health treatment.” What Downes points out however, is that veterans have “apprehensions about going near (and getting lost in) the V.A. bureaucracy.” This notion might not have been meant to be taken sociologically, but the facts do sate that only 23-40% of recent veterans who needed care sought care on their own (lecture). In other words, this 50% increase in capacity would be helpful if only veterans were not afraid of stigmatization and the formalities of the bureaucracy. One has to question whether this part of the order (or any parts of it for that matter) will truly be helpful or simply prove to be a waste of resources. Downes later then adds that veterans can be “helped by the encouragement and understanding of their fellow veterans, and by the effective outreach of a small provider in their own home town.” I would like to take this idea even further and propose that treatments offered by the V.A. should simply be offered at more of a community level rather than in an intimidating bureaucracy. This to me seems as if it would be less stigmatizing and far less intimidating.

So, do I personally think that this executive order is a positive one? Yes, but no. Yes because it speaks to a current population that rarely has its needs met and voice heard by the government. Yes because by acknowledging it at such a high government level, President Obama is confirming and endorsing the idea that the mental health of veterans and service members is an important issue that should be dealt with seriously. But, at the same time I feel as if this order is merely portraying the bare surface of this issue. By simply dealing with the consequences of mental illness and not the causes of it, this order is not only ignoring the fact that a number of mental health problems in this population can be avoided, it seems to imply that the currently growing number of suicide attempts and mental illnesses is unavoidable.

-Camille Estabillo

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