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Mental health programs for troops, vets get star-power boost

Dec. 18, 2013 - 04:33PM   |  
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Oscar and Tony winner Glenn Close lent her star power Wednesday to legislation that would help improve community mental health services, including programs for veterans with service-related behavioral health conditions.

Close, who founded the mental health advocacy group Bring Change 2 Mind after learning her sister suffered from bipolar disorder, said the issue needs to emerge from behind closed doors.

“Our passion is to make mental illness as easy to talk about as diabetes or cancer. It’s part of the human condition to talk about it in whispers behind closed doors ... the truth is, the stigma is still huge,” Close said.

The “Excellence in Mental Health Act,” co-sponsored by Sens. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., and Roy Blunt, R-Mo., would establish a 10-state demonstration project to fund mental health programs that meet strict quality-of-care standards and provide improved access to treatment.

It also would require the Veterans Affairs Department to work closer with community mental health providers and other specialists to treat troops and veterans with behavioral health problems.

Referring to the November stabbing of Virginia state senator and former gubernatorial candidate Creigh Deeds by his son during a mental health crisis, Stabenow said 24-hour access to emergency psychiatric services is a critical component of successful treatment.

Under the bill, participating states would have to offer round-the-clock services as a condition of receiving federal funding.

“If there had been a place [for Austin Deeds] to go and people who knew what to do, it would have made all the difference,” Stabenow said.

Austin Deeds committed suicide following the altercation with his father.

Barbara Van Dahlen, founder of Give An Hour, a nonprofit that runs a network of mental health professionals who donate their services, said the bill is important to veterans because it would help connect former troops with mental health resources other than VA.

“What is critical about this legislation is one size does not fit all. Some veterans will seek wonderful care at VA. Others will seek care at an organization like ours. Many, many, many will seek care through the community health system. We have to have options,” Van Dahlen said.

Retired Marine Lt. Col. Justin Constantine suffered from traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder after he was shot in the head by a sniper in Iraq in 2006.

Seven years after his injury, he takes no medications for combat-related mental health issues but still sees a therapist every week, he said.

“The counseling really helps. My wife can definitely tell if I skip a week of therapy. It is critical that we reduce the stigma attached to seeking behavioral health care because it does work,” Constantine said.

Blunt and Stabenow predicted that the proposed legislation will pass the Senate in spring. They planned to meet with House counterparts to encourage consideration of the bill.

Among the veterans groups in favor of the legislation is Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, one of the largest post-9/11 veterans advocacy groups, which pledged Wednesday to lobby for passage as well as others related to veterans’ mental health.

IAVA legislative director Alexander Nicholson said mental health will be a top priority for his group in 2014.

“In 2013, the backlog [of VA claims] was our biggest issue. Next year, mental health, but especially veterans suicide, is going to be our biggest campaign issue,” Nicholson said.

Close, Stabenow and Blunt urged the public to call their lawmakers and express support for the legislation. Noting that one in four Americans “is touched” by mental illness — either having one themselves or a family member or friend with a mental diagnosis — Close said it’s important for Washington representatives to know their constituents care about this issue.

“Change is going to come on a grassroots level. ... People are just waiting for permission to start the conversation,” she said.

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