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Number of Veteran’s Mental Health Service Employees to Increase by Executive Order


President Obama signed an executive order, Improving Access to Mental Health Services for Veterans, Service Members, and Military Families, into affect August 31st, 2011. In response to the upswing in military suicides in July 2012, this order hopes to streamline resources, improve access and reduce the stigma for all who access mental health services.

The order requires an additional 800 peer counselors to be added to the Veterans’ Affairs services by December 2013. It must assist in the previously established increase of 1600 mental health workers by June 20th, 2013. And most importantly, it must see patients who have self-identified as suicidal within 24 hours of initial contact.

On the administrative level, the order requires the creation of an Interagency Task Force designed to evaluate all aspects of the current mental health system from the initial patient access point to discharge, as well as cost effectiveness. Multiple parties must be involved, including but not limited to:

  • the Department of Education;
  • the Office of Management and Budget;
  • the Domestic Policy Council;
  • the National Security Staff;
  • the Office of Science and Technology Policy; and
  • the Office of National Drug Control Policy.

This group must give the president recommendations on additional improvements to mental health services within 180 days. The order also establishes a separate National Action Research Plan to expand and improve services linked to and studies into traumatic brain injuries (TBI) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Receiving mental health services while serving active duty historically has been seen as a weakness, often effecting patients’ military careers. This is not limited to the military; prejudicial behavior and treatment against those who admit to psychological and/or psychiatric assistance in the civilian world is just as pervasive. What the military and civilian worlds must do is to educate people regarding mental health in order to reduce stigma and encourage the seeking of treatment. While reducing the stigma of treatment this is addressed in this executive order (as well as through other Department of Defense actions), more must be done. Fort Bliss commander Maj. Gen. Dana J.H. Pittard has implemented a highly successful program for incoming soldiers called Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training (ASSIST). With only 25-percent of current Fort Bliss soldiers currently through the program, the suicide rate at Fort Bliss has reduced to one-third of that at other military bases of comparable size. As of July 2013, all soldiers entering Fort Bliss will have to attend ASSIST training.

One item is not addressed: sequestration. Should the Budget Supercommittee not enact an appropriate budget, cuts across the board go into effect. Since 2009, the VA has increased its mental health budget by over a third; however, the VA is slated to lose over $600 million already, not including these new services.

Private sector companies and non-profit agencies are snapping up eligible candidates. The VA’s reputation for lack of services within a reasonable amount of time does not attract the numbers nor the caliber of people needed to fill open positions. The possibility of sequestration does not help entice people to apply for a job that might not be there in less than one year.

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