- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 23, 2006

More than one-third of veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan who are seeking medical treatment from the Veterans Health Administration report symptoms of stress or other mental disorders — a tenfold increase in the last 18 months, according to an agency study.

The jump in cases — coming as more troops face multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan — has triggered concern among some veterans groups that the agency may not be able to meet the demand. They say veterans have had to deal with long waits for doctor appointments, staffing shortages and lack of equipment at medical centers run by the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Veterans and Defense Department officials said the increase in service members complaining of stress or mental disorder symptoms also may suggest that efforts to reduce the stigma of such problems are working and that commanders and medical personnel are more adept at recognizing symptoms.

“It’s definitely better than it was in past generations,” said Paul Rieckhoff, executive director of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.

Veterans Affairs officials say they have increased funding for mental health services, have hired at least 100 more counselors and are not overwhelmed by the rising demands.

“We’re not aware that people are having trouble getting services from us in any consistent way or pattern around the country,” said Dr. Michael Kussman, acting undersecretary for health and top doctor at the VA.

Nearly 64,000 of the more than 184,000 Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans who have sought VA health care were diagnosed with potential symptoms of post-traumatic stress, drug abuse or other mental disorders as of the end of June, according to the latest report by the Veterans Health Administration.

Of those, close to 30,000 had possible post-traumatic stress disorder, the report said.

The Government Accountability Office reported in February 2005 that just 6,400 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans had been treated for stress disorders.

Dr. Kussman said the number of people reporting symptoms of stress probably represents a “gross overestimation” of those actually suffering from a mental health disorder. Most of the troops who return from Iraq have “normal reactions to abnormal situations,” such as flashbacks or trouble sleeping, he said.

The VA, he said, has targeted $300 million for post-traumatic stress disorders for 2005-06, and is seeking another $300 million for 2007.

The Defense Department has made mental health assessments and education programs mandatory for active-duty service members returning from the war. There are several dozen combat stress teams working with military units to prevent and identify stress or other mental health issues.

The department also has put a self-assessment screening on the Internet so military members can evaluate their symptoms.

Dr. Joyce Adkins, the Pentagon’s director of stress management programs, said there has been a slight increase in the number of service members reporting mental health problems or symptoms.

“We’ve done a lot of education for service members at multiple times, to help them understand … the common problems associated with deployment, the symptoms they might experience and what that might mean,” she said.

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