Returning Veterans and Behavioral Health
By Beryl Lieff Benderly
Major General Mark Graham and his wife Carol Graham knew their son Kevin had received treatment for depression. A senior ROTC cadet, Kevin had always been a top student in good physical condition. “In hindsight, we didn’t see the warning signs—we thought he would just get over it,” said Mrs. Graham.
Without a doctor’s guidance, however, Kevin had stopped taking his medication because he feared being stigmatized at an ROTC summer camp he was selected to attend. With his depression untreated, he never arrived at the camp. Instead, he took his own life in his college apartment. (To read the Graham family’s story, see Commitment to Suicide Prevention, Mental Health.)
General and Mrs. Graham spoke at the opening plenary session of “Paving the Road Home,” SAMHSA’s Second National Behavioral Health Conference on Returning Veterans and Their Families, in Bethesda, MD, on August 11.
General Graham, who commands the Army’s Division West and Fort Carson in Colorado, and Mrs. Graham, who works at the national level to raise suicide awareness, brought their message to a capacity audience of 500 behavioral health care providers, officials at all levels of Government, and veterans’ organization representatives from across the country.
Major General Mark Graham (left), who shared his family’s story at the conference’s opening plenary, speaks with SAMHSA’s A. Kathryn Power (right).
In addition, at more than 50 Internet conference sites, a nationwide audience simultaneously watched via Webcast.
General Graham said that depression is insufficiently recognized, a factor that contributed to Kevin’s death. He warned that the same lack of recognition could endanger many of the 800,000 veterans who have returned home from Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as service members on active duty. Why? Because depression and other behavioral health issues—including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), traumatic brain injury (TBI), substance abuse, and suicide—are risks to all who serve in combat zones.
The need to recognize and help veterans recover from these “unseen wounds” that they may have suffered during their service was the major theme of “Paving the Road Home.”
“We need to put psychological injuries on par with physical injuries, a task that requires transforming the culture of the military,” said Brigadier General Loree Sutton, M.D., Special Assistant to the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs.
Of the more than 325,000 returned Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who have been seen at U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) health facilities, 39 percent have mental health diagnoses, including nearly 68,000 with PTSD and an equal number with TBI, said Ira Katz, M.D., Ph.D., Deputy Chief Patient Care Services Officer for the Mental Health Office at the VA.
In 2007, furthermore, about 2,000 active duty service members attempted suicide and 121 succeeded in taking their own lives, the highest number since tracking began in 1980, according to A. Kathryn Power, M.Ed., Director of SAMHSA’s Center for Mental Health Services.