U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki often reminds us that as the tide of war recedes, we have the opportunity, and the responsibility, to anticipate the needs of returning veterans.
As these newest veterans return home, we must ensure that they have access to quality mental health care in order to successfully make this transition to civilian life. In addition, as our Vietnam veterans enter retirement, many of them have begun to take advantage of our services.
Last year, the VA provided specialty mental health services to more than 1.3 million veterans — a 35 percent increase compared with 2007. That’s why we recently announced that the VA will add an additional 1,600 mental health staff professionals and an additional 300 support staff members nationwide, including three on the Western Slope.
These efforts to hire more mental health professionals build on our record of service to veterans. President Barack Obama, Shinseki and the leaders of Grand Junction have devoted more people, programs and resources to veteran mental health services. The VA has increased the mental health care budget by 39 percent since 2009. What’s more, nationwide we’ve increased the number of mental health staff members by 41 percent since 2007. That means today, we have a team of professionals that’s 20,590 strong — all dedicated to providing much-needed direct mental health treatment to veterans. Locally, the Grand Junction VA Medical Center staff has increased by more than 200 percent, and the Grand Junction Vet Center has increased by 50 percent.
While we have made great strides to expand mental health care access, we have much more work to do. The men and women who have had multiple deployments during a decade of combat have carried a tremendous burden for our country.
That’s why Shinseki has challenged the department to improve our progress and identify barriers that prevent veterans from receiving timely treatment As we meet with veterans in Grand Junction and at satellite clinics in Craig, Montrose, Glenwood Springs and Moab, Utah, we learn firsthand what we need to do to improve access to care. Shinseki has sought out the hardest-to-reach, most underserved places — from the remote areas of Alaska to inner city Philadelphia — to hear directly from veterans and employees. And we’re taking action to reach out to those who need mental health care instead of waiting for them to come to us.
Our mission is to increase access to our care and services. We’ve greatly increased the number of Veterans Readjustment Counseling Centers throughout the country. We’ve also developed an extensive suicide prevention program that saves lives every day. For example, our team at the Veteran Crisis Line has fielded more than 600,000 calls from veterans in need and helped rescue more than 21,000 veterans who were in immediate crisis. That’s 21,000 veterans who have been saved.
The mental health of America’s veterans not only touches those of us at the VA and the Department of Defense but also families, friends, co-workers and people in our communities.
We ask that you urge veterans in your communities to reach out and connect with VA services. To locate the nearest VA facility or Vet Center for enrollment and eligibility information and to get scheduled for care, veterans can visit the VA’s website at www.va.gov. Immediate help is available at www.veteranscrisisline.net or by calling the Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255 (push 1) or texting 838255.
Terry S. Atienza is the director of the Grand Junction VA Medical Center