Making mental-health care for veterans a priority


On Veterans Day, we were reminded of the millions of brave men and women that have stood on the front lines for our country. But rarely are we reminded of what these soldiers and military personnel endure once they rejoin civilian life.

Nationally, nearly 30 percent of veterans treated by the Veterans Administration have PTSD or major depression, and an estimated 22 veterans commit suicide every day. We need to do more with the resources we have to help aid in the recovery of our returning service members.

Jim Martinson lost both of his legs and his right index finger when a land mine exploded in Vietnam in 1968. While rehabbing at Madigan Army Medical Center in Tacoma, he felt lost and discouraged. He feared he would never again experience simple joys like skiing or playing basketball.

While Martinson worked on healing physically from his injuries, his mental healing came from sports and his faith. His determination to prevent his injuries from holding him back drove him to compete in — and win — the Boston Marathon in his specialty wheelchair. He captured gold medals in both the Summer and Winter Paralympic Games and was the oldest athlete to compete in skiing at the Winter X Games. Now, he spends his time golfing at Tacoma’s American Lake Veterans Golf Course, which was designed by famed golfer Jack Nicklaus specifically for wounded veterans. The course is the only one of its kind in the country.

Martinson is one of more than 600,000 veterans living in Washington, and he knows firsthand how important it is to find the right services for both physical and mental recovery.

Military personnel and veterans often experience increased rates of mental illness, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety disorders, depression and substance abuse. If left untreated, these conditions can have devastating consequences.

The good news is, mental illnesses can be diagnosed and successfully treated, and with the proper support, people can learn to live in recovery and lead full, rewarding lives. Before that can happen, it’s necessary to identify the issue, alert the person suffering to symptoms that are consistent with a condition or that would warrant further evaluation or treatment, and provide guidance on where to seek assistance.

Veterans can get that kind of comprehensive help through Give an Hour, a national nonprofit organization providing confidential and free mental health services to members of the military, veterans and their loved ones. Nationally, the organization has a network of nearly 7,000 licensed mental health professionals who have provided more than 163,000 hours of care and support to those in need since the organization was founded in 2005.

But more needs to be done. Give an Hour is looking at the South Puget Sound region to recruit more volunteer licensed mental health professional to offer free counseling to the military and veteran population, and to identify and coordinate community-based efforts to create a comprehensive and integrated system of care for service members, veterans and their families as they transition home.

United Health Foundation recently awarded a grant to help Give an Hour raise awareness of agencies and organizations that provide culturally competent counseling to service members, veterans and their loved ones; grow its mental health care provider network; and help military families access the resources and services they need by creating a comprehensive mental health resource list and addressing barriers to treatment — such as money, stigma and transportation — in collaboration with other organizations.

Mental health awareness is everyone’s responsibility — especially for our veterans and their families who have sacrificed for our country. It is incumbent upon us to do what we can to support our veterans. Whether it be through donating time, money or resources, we must come together to make sure no returning service member feels alone.

Martinson says resources like Give an Hour and American Lake Golf Course weren’t around when he returned from Vietnam. But he is glad to see younger soldiers benefiting — and healing — with the help of the community.

— Dr. John Mateczun is president of the UnitedHealthcare Military & Veterans. Barbara Van Dahlen, Ph.D., is president of Give an Hour, a nonprofit organization providing free mental health services to U.S. military personnel and families affected by the current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.