- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 19, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Military families are reaching out for mental health care more than ever before, and the Department of Defense doesn’t know why. The Pentagon needs to figure out what’s going on and address the problems. It’s our responsibility as a society to support those who support our men and women in uniform.

Outpatient mental health visits by the children of active-duty service personnel have doubled since 2003 — when the Iraq war began — to 2 million visits in 2008, according to internal Department of Defense and Department of Veterans Affairs data from June obtained by The Washington Times. There was a significant jump of more than 250,000 visits from 2007 to 2008 alone. These numbers back up anecdotal reports of military families having problems adjusting to long-term deployments of loved ones in Iraq and Afghanistan.

An increase in overall inpatient and outpatient psychological care for the spouses and children of active-duty, reserves and National Guard members also has been found. But the biggest increase in outpatient mental health care was seen in children (up to 14 years old) of active-duty troops, which doubled from about 800,000 visits in 2003 to 1.6 million visits in 2008.

Total yearly inpatient psychological care for the children of active-duty military increased from about 60,000 days in 2003 to 90,000 days in 2008. The rate jumped by more than 15,000 days between 2007 and 2008 alone. The biggest increase in mental-health-related hospitalizations was seen among children up to the age of 14, which went from 35,000 days in 2003 to 55,000 days in 2008.

The causes remain unclear, but a similar rise in mental health care has not been seen in the country as a whole. In 2003, nearly 28 million Americans received mental health care. This rose to about 29.4 million in 2007, according to the latest Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration data. James D. Colliver, a statistician in SAMHSA’s Office of Applied Studies, told us there was “no [statistically] significant change in 2003 through 2007 in outpatient or inpatient [mental health service] usage by children or adults ” in the U.S. population overall.

The Defense Department did not respond to questions about the findings.

The Senate’s version of 2010 defense authorization legislation requires a comprehensive review of the impact of deployments on military children as well as a review of psychological care and counseling services available to military children.

The secretary of defense is required to have a plan in place by September 2013 to increase military and civilian mental health personnel available to our troops and their families. The House version of the bill provides additional funding aimed at recruiting mental health providers under the Health Professions Scholarship Program.

More than long-term planning is needed. President Obama needs to appoint a permanent undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness who would oversee all military health affairs. The position currently is filled only temporarily. Having a permanent leader in that post would help our troops know their families are being taken care of when they are deployed.

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