Mideast edition, Wednesday, July 18, 2007

WASHINGTON — Veterans Affairs officials on Monday pledged to expand their mental health services nationwide as part of a departmentwide review examining whether they are meeting the needs of returning combat veterans.

Officials said 23 new veterans centers nationwide will open this year and they vowed to expand mental health treatments at those clinics and hire at least 100 more Iraq and Afghanistan veterans to help staff those programs.

“We know that we’re doing well — we’re the recognized leader in dealing with these issues in the world — but we don’t think that we should assume that we’ve cornered the market,” said VA secretary Jim Nicholson. “We need to keep adding services, and checking ourselves to make sure we’re getting it right.”

His comments came at the start of a weeklong conference on mental health care with department specialists and outside experts.

Nicholson said the department also has planned state mental health conferences to discuss the successes and shortcomings of their offerings on a more regional level, to find ways to improve services.

Department of Defense research shows that nearly 30 percent of troops returning from combat tours overseas show signs of anxiety, depression or traumatic stress disorders.

VA officials said about 60,000 young veterans have sought mental health services at their clinics over the past five years.

Dr. Matthew Friedman, executive director of the National Center for PTSD, said the department has done a good job expanding its treatment options for things such as depression and other emotional problems, but reliable access and consistency among clinicians in those programs remains a problem.

Still, he said, mental health treatment today is “light years ahead” of what troops returning from the Vietnam War faced.

“You had soldiers facing traumatic incidents and then returning home to a hostile environment; you couldn’t have written a worse scenario,” he said.

“That’s not the case anymore. Despite deep political divisions, the support for troops is universal. And that social support will make a huge difference for these guys.”

Only about 8 percent of veterans receiving mental health care in the VA system are from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but officials expect that number to rise in coming years. About 250,000 young veterans have used VA services since 2002.

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