A Beautiful Department of Veterans Affairs Mental Health Center, But is it Enough?
by Gary Peterson and Mark Emmons
Bay Area News Group, June 21, 2012
Chris Hurt walked the wide-open halls of the new Mental Health Center at the VA Palo Alto campus, admiring the airy feel of an 80-bed unit that features enclosed courtyards and even an area to play basketball.
The acute inpatient psychiatric facility, he said, is like “night and day” from the old, claustrophobic building next door where he recently spent two weeks.
“Every single person here goes through moments where they’re so miserable that they just want to get out,” said Hurt, 25, who served two tours in Iraq as an Army specialist. “I don’t think anybody wants to be here. But this is better because it’s more like a hospital and less like a psych ward.”
The 76,000-square-foot center, which will be unveiled in a ribbon-cutting ceremony Friday afternoon, is a tangible example of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ national expansion of mental health services to meet the record number of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans seeking help for emotional problems like post-traumatic stress disorder — the signature, invisible wound of these conflicts.
“There’s a lot of people,” Hurt added, “who will be coming out a lot worse off than me.”
But while the VA is in the process of hiring 1,900 mental-health workers, the government agency has endured withering criticism from many veterans and advocacy groups for being behind the curve in helping America’s newest warriors — especially when it comes to resolving a crushing backlog of disability claims.
I’m sorry, but this is all smoke and mirrors. There are 2.4 million people who have served in these wars. There’s a tsunami of mental health issues coming and will be with us for decades — Shad Meshad, National Veterans Foundation
“I’m sorry, but this is all smoke and mirrors,” said Shad Meshad, co-founder and president of the National Veterans Foundation. “There are 2.4 million people who have served in these wars. There’s a tsunami of mental health issues coming and will be with us for decades. It’s great that the people who use these 80 beds have a shot. But as a country we have yet to put our arms around this problem.”
Count Bob Handy, a Navy veteran of the Korea and Vietnam conflicts and chairman of Veterans United for Truth, among the skeptics.
“You can build all the edifices in the world, and if you don’t have the staff to do what they’re supposed to be doing, you could be doing it in an old World War II Quonset hut,” Handy said. “They’re spending all this money on visible things when they’re not fixing the problem.”
The VA is struggling to treat an unprecedented number of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who are seeking treatment for mental disorders — almost 425,000 of the nearly 1.5 million military personnel who have left the service since the decadelong conflicts began. A recent VA report indicated that 245,658 have been examined for potential PTSD.
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