Lawmakers and advocates working to improve veteran mental health care on federal and local levels

El Paso News

EL PASO, Texas (KTSM) — As Suicide Prevention Month draws to a close, advocates and legislators are urging the community to support vulnerable populations year-round. 

On Tuesday, Congresswoman Veronica Escobar spoke with KTSM 9 News about the importance of recognizing the challenges facing veterans and servicemembers during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“Suicide rates among our service members are far too high,” said Escobar. “They’re far too high in El Paso and at Fort Bliss. This is an issue that challenges and plagues our community.”

According to CBS News, military suicide has increased by 20% since this time in 2019. 

“The feelings of isolation, the feelings of loneliness, the solitude, the desperation in some cases as related to the health crisis, as well as the economic crisis,” says Escobar. 

In El Paso, The Steven A. Cohen Military Family Clinic at Endeavors has been working to provide telehealth services to veterans and their families struggling with negative mental health symptoms. 

“We provide high-quality integrative mental health care for veterans and families,” said Benjamin Miranda, director of Operational Impact and Business Development at Endeavors in El Paso. 

“The unique thing is that we do it regardless of role, whether in uniform or discharge status,” he continues.

Since March 1, Miranda says the isolation caused by the pandemic has made people who already have feelings of loneliness feel even lonelier and that more than 36,000 telehealth sessions have been provided nationwide.

“As servicemembers struggle with COVID-19, isolation, warzone deployments — coming back, reintegration — despite the challenges, we remain focused on our mission,” said Miranda. 

The Cohen Network in El Paso has treated more than 3,000 new clients — almost all remotely — over the last six months. 

In January and February, the Cohen Network averaged about 800 sessions a month and that number drastically increased in March once the pandemic shut down the United States.

Miranda says the Cohen Network is now averaging more than 6,000 sessions a month as the effects of COVID-19 on people’s mental and physical health, the economy and life as we once knew continue to fester. 

According to the Veteran Crisis Line, there are socially distanced ways to support veterans that include connecting via phone call, text or email.

Most important, experts say, is to listen to the person and let them decide how much they feel comfortable sharing. 

Both Miranda and Escobar agree that encouraging the community to continue to destigmatize mental illness is paramount. 

As important as community support is when it comes to protecting veterans and servicemembers, policies designed to buttress support are equally important. 

According to the Mayo Clinic, mental health stigma not only has psychological effects that further exacerbate mental illness, but can also lead to discrimination.

Escobar has introduced legislation designed to enhance the quality of care for veterans and service members. 

The Honor Our Commitment Act of 2020 would require the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to provide mental health care to veterans who received other-than-honorable discharges, or a “bad paper” discharge. 

One report says that some bad paper discharges are due to undiagnosed physical or mental disabilities that contributed to misconduct. The report suggests that many bad paper discharges are the result of trauma.

According to the report:

“Servicemembers, especially servicemembers who deploy to combat zones or who experience Military Sexual Trauma (MST), are at higher risk for PTSD. Among the common symptoms of PTSD are sleep disorders, mood changes, reckless behavior, substance use, and isolation. These same symptoms can contribute to behavior—such as failure to carry out duties, being chronically late, or not complying with policies—deemed inconsistent with the standards of military service. Especially when a servicemember’s PTSD is undiagnosed, a military command may discharge a servicemember with bad paper without any understanding of the true origin of the servicemember’s conduct and without any consideration of the mitigating circumstances.”

https://legalservicescenter.org/wp-content/uploads/Turn-Away-Report.pdf

Bad paper discharges have affected hundreds of thousands of veterans. Today, more than 400,000 veterans are at-risk for denied care because of bad paper discharges. 

“Combat veterans, sexual assault victims and other service members that have risked their lives and suffered the wounds of war should not be denied care,” Escobar said. “We lose thousands of brave veterans to suicide every year, and a majority of those are not accessing health care through the VA. This critical legislation will ensure that no veteran is left behind because they can’t cut through red tape and access the services and resources they need and deserve.”

Another piece of legislation introduced by Escobar, the Ask Veterans Act, would require the VA to contract experienced third-party organizations to conduct yearly surveys to assess veterans’ experiences obtaining care at various VA sites. The bill would require the survey creator to consult with Veterans Services Organizations in order to gain critical insight.

The bills introduced by Escobar are all designed to ensure veterans and service members are heard by the federal government.

“I’ve heard from far too many service members and veterans who have issues receiving benefits and care,” said Escobar. “To gain insight on veterans’ experiences in our VAs and ensure transparency, we need to listen and take our cues from our veterans directly.”

This week, a separate piece of legislation was passed that will contribute to supporting service members and veterans through inter-departmental collaboration designed to protect their interests on the policy level .

On Tuesday, the House Judiciary Committee passed Escobar’s bill to protect service members and veterans by establishing permanent initiatives in conjunction with the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice (DOJ). 

The Servicemembers and Veterans Initiative Act of 2020 (H.R. 8354) assigns duties to the DOJ to represent the legal interests of service members, veterans and their families. Some of the interests include serving as legal and policy advisor to the Attorney General, developing policy recommendations, and a significant emphasis on liaisons between the DOJ and military departments. 

“By permanently establishing a Servicemembers and Veterans Initiative within the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice, the Servicemembers and Veterans Initiative Act ensures that the Department can effectively address civil and criminal frauds against servicemembers and their families. I thank Representative Escobar for her leadership on this issue and for authoring this important legislation,” said House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler.

The bill is currently awaiting consideration on the House floor. 

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