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Washington, D.C.-- American troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan and other veterans cannot depend solely on the Departments of Defense (DoD) and Veterans Affairs (VA) for mental health care—even though the civilian mental health care system is in crisis, according to the annual convention of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) held this past week.
"The VA and DoD can't do it alone. We need to rely on community providers," declared Jon Towers, senior policy advisor on the U.S. Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs at a symposium broadcast live on C-SPAN.
In the opening speech at the 2010 NAMI Convention, U.S. Representative Patrick Kennedy warned, "Every day in America, our military veterans are being held behind enemy lines" because of the nation's "Byzantine mental health system."
"By changing the mental health system for veterans, we will change it for all of us," Kennedy said.
"We're only going to see great progress when the civilian community starts paying attention," said Tom Tarantino, legislative associate for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) in the July 2 symposium.
"This shouldn't be a DoD-VA dialogue, but a national dialogue," said the Army Surgeon General's special assistant for mental health, Col. Elspeth Cameron Ritchie, M.D., who called for a "needs assessment" in local communities to identify duplications and gaps in efforts.
The 2010 NAMI Convention symposium followed a speech by Pamela Hyde, administrator of the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services (HHS) Substance Abuse & Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), who said as many soldiers in the Army are dying from suicide as have died in Iraq.
However, state and local mental health services face massive state budget cuts and long-term lack of investment. In Grading the States, a NAMI report published in 2009 that assessed state mental healthy care systems based on 65 specific criteria, the average grade was only a D.
The 2010 NAMI Convention symposium included Ira Katz, M.D., the VA's deputy chief patient care services officer and Joy Ilem, deputy national legislative director for Disabled American Veterans.
In a PowerPoint presentation available on the NAMI Web site, Ritchie listed long-term challenges including education, integration of services and increasing the number of providers.
"The mental health of service members depends on the mental health of family members," Towers said.
"More than two million American children have had parents deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan," Hyde said. "A growing number of families are military-connected. The numbers are huge."
NAMI has worked with the VA to provide its Family-to-Family Education Program to families of veterans and also maintains an on-line Veterans Resource Center.
NAMI is the nation's largest grassroots mental health organization dedicated to improving the lives of individuals and families affected by mental illness.