Opening $60-Million VA Mental Health Center in California Nothing But “Smoke and Mirrors” Critics Say

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.

VA’s 80-bed mental health facility opened June 21, 2012, in Palo Alto, Calif., at a time when 2.4 million service members have deployed to war zones since 2001. The rate psychiatric injury among returning veterans is nearly 40 percent according to a 2009 VA study. The suicide rate among veterans of the same group is more than twice that of non-veterans. The average wait for transitioning veterans to receive VA benefits is more than 300 days and there are more than 950,000 backlogged disability claims at the VA.

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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2 Responses

  1. Reblogged this on Fighting PTSD.

  2. Mental health units in our VA are doing more of the same old labeling the patients with a psychiatric disorder, prescribing antipsychotic and pain pills with multiple side effects. More often than not just confining the injured warriors for a few days to “adapt or adjust” to the pills. Health, healing and restoration services are primarily conventional counseling with hourly sessions by often untrained group therapists. The VA is not recognizing and/or unable to deliver Integrative & Holistic Health Services for the service members and their families with intensive & extensive services, with occasional followup, brief visits and superficial continuing care services. Visit our website to view a comprehensive organizational plan that could be adopted by every community health system if they seriously engage our returning warriors. Just more of the same old pill factory offered by psychiatry & psychology not trained in Integrative or Holistic Medicine. Would be great if these methods were integrated and applied with our service members.

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