Army To Beef Up Mental Health Help

generic troops marines army mental illness ill brain mentally CBS/AP

Overwhelmed by the number of soldiers returning from war with mental problems, the Army is planning to hire at least 25 percent more psychiatrists, psychologists and social workers.

A contract finalized this week calls for spending $33 million to add about 200 mental health professionals to help soldiers with post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health needs.

"As the war has gone on, PTSD and other psychological effects of war have increased," said Col. Elspeth Ritchie, psychiatry consultant to the Army surgeon general.

"The number of (mental health workers) that was adequate for a peacetime military is not adequate for a nation that's been at war," she said in an interview.

The new hiring, which she said could begin immediately, is part of a wider plan of action the Army has laid out to improve health care to wounded or ill veterans and their families. It also comes as the Defense Department completes a wider mental health study — the latest in a series over recent months that has found services for troops have been inadequate.

"We concentrate a great deal on physical health — that is, how fast can you run a mile, how many sit-ups and pushups can you do — but we don't often concentrate on the psychological health of a service member," Vice Admiral Donald Arthur, who co-chairs the Pentagon's mental health task force, told reporters at the Pentagon on Friday.

Ritchie said long and repeat deployments caused by extended wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are causing more mental strain on troops. "At the time that the war began, I don't think anybody anticipated how long it would be going on," she said.

Surveys of troops in Iraq have shown that 15 percent to 20 percent of Army soldiers have signs and symptoms of post-traumatic stress, which can cause flashbacks of traumatic combat experiences and other severe reactions.

About 35 percent of soldiers are seeking some kind of mental health treatment a year after returning home under a program that screens returning troops for physical and mental health.

"I think it's a very good move, because I believe, for a long time, that the armed services have downplayed the traumatic effects that people experience in the battlefield," Eric Dlugokinski, a retired professor of psychology at the University of Oklahoma, told CBS News.

The military has seen a number of high-profile incidents of alleged abuse in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Officials and military analysts have blamed reported ethics lapses partly on the strain of combat and insufficient training troops got before being sent to the battlefront.

"It's often not dealt with and talked about, and we know for a fact that the trauma that people go through can be reduced if it is talked about in a safe place," said Dlugokinski.

Without help, it may be difficult for a member of the armed forces to adjust to civilian life.

"Oftentimes, they're flooded with memories, or their emotions are 'hijacked,' so what would be a normal experience, where somebody might become a little bit irritable or a little bit frightened, they might have an intense reaction," he told CBS News' Phyllis McQuillan.

Ritchie said the 200 new medical health workers will be added to more than 600 uniformed and civilian mental health professionals now working at three dozen Army medical centers and hospitals.

The Army also is planning a number of other improvements, such as streamlining bureaucracy that vets must go through to get care and adding more lawyers and other workers to help them and their families.

A report from a Defense Department task force released Thursday also found "current efforts fall significantly short" in providing help for troops.

"The psychological health needs of America's military service members, their families and their survivors pose a daunting and growing challenge to the Department of Defense," it said.

The task force was required by Congress under in 2006 law.

Also on Thursday, a Senate panel voted to expand brain screenings and counseling for wounded veterans of the Iraq war and to reduce red tape for service members moving from Pentagon to Veterans Affairs care.

The bill, approved by the Senate Armed Services Committee, also would boost disability pay and provide more counseling for family members of tens of thousands of U.S. service members wounded in combat.

The action, which sends the bill to the Senate floor, capped a flurry of activity in recent weeks to reach broad agreement on a single measure that would improve health care following reports of shoddy outpatient treatment at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

Separately, the VA said that it would bolster programs to prevent suicide among veterans by hiring additional counselors at each of its 153 medical centers after an internal review found that current VA programs were inadequate.

The unspecified number of new counselors would join 9,000 mental health professionals already employed by the VA to help veterans.

Meanwhile, the White House has backed away from earlier threats to veto a spending bill containing $4 billion more than President Bush sought for veterans' health care.

Just last month, White House budget director Rob Portman pledged that Mr. Bush would veto bills from Congress that would break through hiss budget caps.
  • Lloyd Vries

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