As November honors veterans with Veterans Day, I have found myself in several conversations, conducting presentations, participating in panel discussions and reflecting on what military service means to me and to our country. It is with the greatest of honor and privilege that I have been able to serve in the Air Force as an active-duty psychologist, and I currently serve in the Arkansas Army National Guard as the lead behavioral health officer. When asked to consider writing this blog, I thought to myself, “What would I want service members and veterans to know about mental health and military service?”
During drill weekend in early November, I was a co-presenter for the mental health briefing as part of a “Holistic Health Event” put on by one of the units at Camp Robinson. As behavioral health officers, we try to make these briefings informative but light and fun. We also try to solicit meaningful questions in an anonymous manner, so we hand out a piece of paper to everyone in the audience and ask them to write down one question they have about behavioral health. As I prepared to write this blog, I reflected on some of those questions, and I am responding to them here in hopes that a wider audience can find some benefit from them. All of these questions came up during each of the four presentations we did that weekend, so I’m assuming others may be interested as well. However, I’ll add that my responses are very general and represent only my own views, experiences, and perspectives … not those of Veterans Affairs (VA) or the military.
Can I receive mental health treatment and still serve in the military? The short answer to this is “YES!” Now, are there going to be some more serious situations that result in discharge from the military? Yes. However, in most cases, that is not going to apply to the general military population. I recently heard it quoted that of the roughly 6,000 Army National Guard soldiers we have in the state, only about 35 of them are on a duty-limiting conditions profile related to a mental health condition. Even within this very low number, most will be returned to full duty.
Where can I get mental health services as a member of the National Guard, reserves, or as a veteran? If you have deployed (i.e. been on Title 10 orders), then you should be eligible to use the VA. If you have not deployed and are currently serving in the Guard or reserves, then you can use Military One Source. If you’re in the Arkansas Army National Guard, you can call 501-212-5441 and speak to a case manager who can help get you connected to resources in your local area. If you have Tricare coverage, here is a helpful link: Mental Health Care | TRICARE. You can also google your own private insurance carrier, and most will have just a few clicks to learning more about your mental health coverage and how to access care near you.
Why use the VA? There are so many reasons to use your VA Healthcare Benefits! As a veteran myself, I use the VA system in Little Rock, Arkansas. I realize that I am only one person, but I can say that I’ve been very pleased with the care I have received. Recently, I had to help my dad, a non-Veteran, through a healthcare crisis, and I become even more keenly aware of what it means to have access to a world-class healthcare system. So, some perspectives:
· The majority of the VA providers use “Evidence Based Practices.” This means that the physician, psychologist, social worker, nurse, pharmacist, etc., that you see are using treatments and interventions that have been shown, through research, to be effective. They have been shown to help people get better and to reduce the chances of major side effects or bad outcomes. The VA puts a lot of money into researching treatments, and the system is designed to encourage or, in some cases, require the use of these treatments. The way I think of it: “If you had cancer, wouldn’t you want the right combination of chemotherapy and/or radiation to help you get rid of the cancer? The medications or therapies that have been proven to work?” Sure … most of us would! It’s the same thing with mental health treatment. The VA uses treatments that have been shown to be effective for some specific mental health conditions (i.e. PTSD, depression).
· The VA is a full healthcare system that allows for patients’ records to be accessed by all of their healthcare providers. One of the challenges of healthcare is getting records from one provider to the next, and the VA has a medical record system that allows for all the providers that a veteran encounters to see the notes of other providers, test results, labs, medications, etc. So, instead of having to try to remember what that dermatology doctor told you about a particular medication so that you can relay that back to your primary care doctor, the primary care doctor can just see the dermatologist’s notes and treatment. No need for fax machines or hand-carrying records back and forth, and your healthcare providers have greater access to consult with one another about your care.
· If you transfer from one VA system to another, the new VA medical system can also view those records. And, if you apply for any sort of disability related to your military service, the evaluating provider has access to your VA records, which means you don’t have to worry about scanning them and uploading them with your claim.
· If you’re currently serving as a reservist, the VA records are accessible to your military providers, which makes it so much easier to retrieve documentation of your conditions and for your military providers to see what is going on with your condition.
· In most cases, using the VA means significantly reduced healthcare costs to the Veteran (i.e. low or no copay; no premiums; etc.).
“But I didn’t deploy or see combat. I don’t deserve to use VA.” One of my colleagues at the VA has a great response to this … she says, “VA healthcare is not like getting a piece of pie. There aren’t a limited number of slices. One veteran accessing and using VA healthcare does not disallow another veteran from getting access. VA is not pie; it won’t run out. It is an entitlement that you have earned through your service.” The other thing I’ll add to that is that each VA medical center receives funding from the government based on the numbers of veterans enrolled and utilizing their services. So, from that logic, even if you only visit the VA one time a year, then your enrollment is helping other veterans have access to the VA system too!
“Enrolling in the VA is so complicated, and I don’t even know where to start.” Well, here is a great place to start: How To Apply For VA Health Care | Veterans Affairs You can apply right here online! All you need is your social security number, your DD214 (or other separation documents), insurance card information (if you have that) and income information. There are also other helpful links on this website, so definitely check it out. You can also just walk into the nearest VA clinic or medical center and ask for eligibility. Those folks are super helpful!
Just a few other helpful links:
- For VA services in Central Arkansas: VA Central Arkansas Health Care | Veterans Affairs
- For VA services in Northwest Arkansas: VA Fayetteville Arkansas Health Care | Veterans Affairs
For all the veterans reading this, thank you for your service!
In “Worth Fighting For,” Arkansas PBS delves into the struggle to save veteran lives as suicide rates rise. An experienced panel – including Gina Chandler, Assistant Director for Veteran Services, Arkansas Department of Veteran Affairs; Laura Watlington, Suicide Prevention Program Manager, Central Arkansas Veterans Healthcare System; Col. Don Berry (retired), Arkansas Veterans Coalition; Dan Hall, U.S. Veteran Outreach and Dr. Mandy McCorkindale, Chief Psychologist, Central Arkansas Veterans Healthcare System – discusses matters such as mental health resources, coping with loss and other problems that can lead to suicide ideation, the warning signs and symptoms, and things families and friends can do to help the veterans close to them.