Why Care for Veterans Benefits Us All

By Sarah Beller 11/12/12

Paying to help vets with mental health and addiction problems is the smart course of action, as well as the right one.

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Every dollar invested in evidence-based care for veterans with untreated mental health disorders results in $2.50 in savings over the following two years, according to a report released today by the National Council for Behavioral Health. It states that if all 210,000 untreated vets with PTSD and/or major depression received appropriate, evidence-based treatment, the $481 million investment would yield over $1.2 billion in eventual savings. Veterans are currently moving from DoD (Department of Defense)- and VA-provided services to community-based services—and if money isn't invested now, Medicaid, Medicare and public mental health agencies will bear huge costs later. Of course, as Jeannie Campbell, a veteran and executive vice president of the National Council, says, “providing effective, proven treatments for our veterans is not just about saving money, it’s about saving lives.” 

Currently 27% (657,000) veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan use community based care; by 2014, a projected 40% will benefit from these services. “We need a mandate and the funding to deliver the right care at the right time and in the right setting for the men and women who have risked their lives,” says Linda Rosenberg, the National Council’s president and CEO. Yet the public policy dialogue has so far framed the mental healthcare shortfall as the sole responsibility of the VA and Department of Defense.

Around 30% of veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan report symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), traumatic brain injury, depression, mental illness or another cognitive disability. Yet according to the National Council’s report, less than half of returning veterans who need it receive any treatment. And left untreated, these conditions wreak havoc on people's lives, often contributing to substance abuse, addiction, fatal ODs and suicide, as well as violations of the law. The unemployment rate for veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan is 40% higher than for the general population—and one in three homeless men is a vet. The men and women who have risked their lives deserve services to prevent or tackle addiction and safeguard their mental health. The report concludes: “There are effective, proven treatments that can save lives and costs. We must ensure that our veterans get the services we owe them.”

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Sarah Beller is a writer and the Executive Director at Filter. She has written about drug policy with a focus on harm reduction for Substance.comThe Fix and Salon. She has worked as a social worker with formerly incarcerated people in New York for a number of years. Her writing has also appeared in McSweeney’sThe HairpinThe ToastReductressThe Rumpus and other publications. You can find Sarah on Linkedin and Twitter.