Topeka Funding cuts are making it difficult to meet the increasing needs of veterans with mental health issues, mental health providers and agencies for veterans in Kansas told lawmakers on Tuesday.
Advocates told the House Veterans, Military and Homeland Security Committee that an increase in such needs is leading more veterans to commit suicide.
Sheli Sweeney, of the Kansas Association of Community Mental Health Associations, provided statistics showing that 26 percent of all veterans returned from Iraq and Afghanistan with some sort of mental disorder and female soldiers were three times as likely to commit suicide.
More than 7,500 Kansas National Guard members have been deployed to overseas operations, including repeated duty in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Sweeney said there is growing concern that veterans and their families are dealing with increased frequency of mental illness, substance abuse, traumatic brain injuries and other ailments that aren’t readily apparent.
“These invisible injuries impact veterans, their families, children, employers and communities,” Sweeney said.
She said veterans and their families often must wait for services if they aren’t facing an immediate crisis, especially members of the Kansas National Guard who may live miles from the nearest services.
Robbin Cole, executive director of the Pawnee Mental Health Services in northeast Kansas, said mental health providers are limited in what they can do for veterans and families because of funding and restrictions placed on substance abuse treatment by TriCare, the military health care program.
She said veterans who are diagnosed with a substance abuse problem can only get services through Pawnee paid by TriCare if there is a mental health diagnosis as well. There are only three TriCare approved outpatient substance abuse providers in Kansas in Salina, Shawnee Mission and Newton, and no residential providers in the state.
Committee Chairman Mario Goico, a Wichita Republican and Kansas Air National Guard veteran, urged the committee to write to the Kansas congressional delegation to discuss changes in these provisions to give veterans access to more care by recognizing more substance abuse treatment providers.
Cole said that the effect of reduced mental health services available to veterans and families include increased social costs, such as more demands placed on law enforcement and the judicial system.
“There is a public cost to mental health. There is no way to avoid that,” Cole said. “But we’ll be spending a lot more money and not get as good of results if we would have done it on the front end.”
Rep. Ann Mah, a Topeka Democrat, said the state should reverse declines in community mental health spending to provide more support. The state is spending approximately $10.2 million in the current year on grants to community programs.
“We ought to be sending a letter to our governor saying what’s going on,” she said.
Goico said that even though the committee didn’t have the authority to appropriate money that it should work on a bill that establishes a structure for suicide prevention that involves the staff of the Kansas National Guard, community organizations and veterans’ service groups, such as the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars.
“When you are deployed, there is a small group that can keep an eye on each other, but being able to detect there is a problem when they return is hard to do,” he said.