World Mental Health Day — let's remember our veterans

World Mental Health Day — let's remember our veterans
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Today is World Mental Health Day. The day’s objective, as stated by the World Health Organization, is to raise “awareness of mental health issues around the world and mobiliz[e] efforts in support of mental health.”

Although mental health is an important topic for all citizens, it is of particular importance for our nation’s veterans, many of whom struggle with mental health issues that stem from combat, deployment, declining physical health, and readjusting to civilian life.

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Unfortunately, important issues pertaining to veterans’ mental health have been overshadowed in the media the last few weeks by more salacious headlines, particularly those pertaining to the activity of the Senate Judiciary Committee regarding now Justice Brett KavanaughBrett Michael Kavanaugh‘Justice’ selected as Merriam-Webster’s 2018 word of the year Chief justice of California Supreme Court leaves GOP over Kavanaugh confirmation Doug Jones: Carmakers 'scared to death' over Trump tariffs MORE.

The public’s inability to focus on anything other than the Kavanaugh hearing’s soap opera-esque plot only drives home the point that the country needs to better understand the significance of better mental health treatment. We also need to understand the impact of failing to take mental health concerns seriously.

As the House Veterans Affairs Committee held an important hearing on Sept. 27 to discuss new data released by the Department of Veterans Affairs — including startling statistics about the increase in veterans suicide rates over the past decade — most Americans, including the media, chose to overlook the discussion entirely, choosing instead to focus solely on the conflicting testimony of Justice Kavanaugh and Dr. Christine Blasey Ford regarding what did or did not happen when they were high school students.

As noted by at least one outlet that was paying attention, the Minneapolis Star Tribune Editorial Board, in response to the day’s media’s coverage, “[c]overage of the public health crisis among veterans fell disappointingly short, jeopardizing the awareness needed to build support for change.”

Although the House hearing was planned in direct response to the VA’s new suicide data report and the circus that would ensue before the Senate Judiciary Committee was not entirely known at the time the hearing was noticed, the lack of media coverage and public outrage over the devastating information revealed at the hearing highlights how misplaced our nation’s priorities are.

Regardless of one’s political alliances or thoughts on the results of the Kavanaugh debacle, many citizens and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have remarked how troubled they were by the vitriolic confirmation process and have called for a retreat from “poisonous politics.”

If lawmakers and voters want to put their money where their mouth is, calling for a bipartisan focus on veterans’ mental health and the veterans’ suicide epidemic is an appropriate place to start.

First, as highlighted by the recent withdrawal of Jason Kander, a former Army intelligence officer and Missouri Secretary of State, from the Kansas City governor’s race in 2019 to seek PTSD treatment, issues pertaining to veterans’ mental health “remain[ ] almost entirely in the political shadows, misunderstood and feared by voters." 

Lawmakers can easily work together on doing better to dispel this stereotype. When Congress passed the Clay Hunt SAV Act in 2015, the last substantive piece of legislation that was directly related to addressing veterans mental health care and suicide prevention, the bill passed unanimously, 99-0 in the Senate and 403-0 in the House. 

The political landscape has of course changed since 2015, but there is no reason that Congress cannot once again unite around the important issues pertaining to veterans’ mental health. To the contrary, Congress should be searching out ways to move past the partisan warfare of the past few weeks and set an example of how to work together in the future.

Second, despite Congress’ best efforts when the Clay Hunt SAV Act was passed, there is still more work to be done to raise awareness and improve veterans’ mental health outcomes. Mental health issues are complicated, particularly when they are intertwined with veterans’ unique physical healthcare needs and a single piece of legislation cannot be expected to solve them.

As I have previously pointed out in the context of other VA-related reforms, legislation is a starting point, but not an ending one and the Clay Hunt SAV Act is no exception. While legislation is often a catalyst toward reform, true reform does not take place until those that the law impacts truly accept and embrace it — in other words, when cultural change has happened. 

Our nation is still in need of cultural change when it comes to our overall understanding of mental health and veterans’ mental health in particular. The World Health Organization’s designation of today as World Mental Health Day is therefore as good an opportunity as any to get that conversation started about where we go from here.

To this end, the Clay Hunt SAV Act specifically required that VA report to Congress by Dec. 1, 2018, an update on its programs and the Secretary’s recommendations. This report is thus due after the midterm elections and provides a unique opportunity for legislators to set the stage for the tone of the 116th Congress.

As highlighted at the House hearing two weeks ago, there is currently a gap in integrating successful mental health initiatives that help veterans, but to fill that gap, the public needs to be reminded of the problem. 

Reminding the public of the problem by holding a hearing that ascribes to the rules of decorum expected of our elected officials and is focused on finding solutions and working across the aisle, may be exactly what the nation, not just veterans who are suffering, needs.

Rory E. Riley-Topping served as a litigation staff attorney for the National Veterans Legal Services Program (NVLSP), where she represented veterans and their survivors before the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims. She also served as the staff director and counsel for the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs for former Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.). You can find her on Twitter: @RileyTopping.