Report: Stigmas stop veterans in need from seeking health care

By DAVE BOUCHER | Charleston (W. Va.) Daily Mail | Published: November 18, 2013

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Virginia veterans at the highest risk of committing suicide are least likely to seek medical or mental health care, according to data presented Monday to a legislative committee.

Many said they couldn't make themselves get help, didn't think others would understand or didn't think the treatment would help anyway.

Similar stigmas surrounding treatment for mental health issues keep many veterans from getting help, West Virginia University professor Joseph Scotti told the Legislature's Select Committee on Veterans' Affairs.

"What we need to do is counter that by saying look, you're not the only guy in this boat," Scotti said.

Scotti -- who also runs WHOLE Veterans, an organization aiming to help veterans successful transition back into civilian life -- presented more data from a 2012 survey of more than 1,200 West Virginia veterans.

Released in January, the survey found more than 20 percent of West Virginia's veterans meet the criteria for a suicide risk.

Looking at what these veterans think about treatment is the next step in trying to get them the help they need, Scotti said.

About 40 percent of the state's veterans meet the criteria for depression and 25 percent meet the criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder. Veterans suffering from depression or PTSD are far more likely to commit suicide than those who do not, according to data from the survey.

This ratio is not unique to veterans. But nationally, veterans suffer from these mental health issues at a far higher rate than the general public, Scotti said.

The survey shows nearly a quarter of West Virginia veterans suffering from depression or PTSD who did not seek medical treatment did so because they couldn't make themselves get treatment. Almost 20 percent of those veterans cited the same reason for not seeking mental health care.

Other common reasons veterans suffering from these issues did not seek medical or mental health treatment include: not able to afford treatment; not able to take time away from work; bad experiences with other providers; others have greater need; and others will think the person is weak for seeking help.

Veterans suffering from these mental health issues who are a high risk for suicide most often cited some of these reasons for not getting help, the survey shows.

"The more distressed you are, the more reasons you come up with for not going," Scotti said.

"The worse I am, the more I have to take care of someone else."

The survey itself is not new to the Legislature. But this was the first time the lawmakers saw a breakdown of reasons why veterans don't get help.

"I thought it was very alarming," said Delegate Barbara Fleischauer, D-Monongalia.

Fleischauer is co-chair of the veterans' affairs interim committee. She said the committee is still working on finding legislative solutions to some of the health factors facing veterans.

In the meantime, she said she thinks this information shows that veterans need to know there's nothing wrong with getting treatment.

"That says we need to be talking more about the fact treatment helps," Fleischauer said.

Scotti said he plans to continue working with local veterans officials on connection veterans with health care providers. He wasn't sure of any immediate law change that could help this process, but said lawmakers talking about connecting veterans with help is a step in the right direction.

Other data outline similar health problems facing West Virginia veterans.

A recent report found West Virginia has the highest rate of overdose deaths in the country. The Veterans Affairs medical centers in Beckley and Huntington prescribed power painkillers at some of the highest rates in the nation during the past decade, according to a different report.

There are roughly 170,000 veterans in West Virginia, giving the state one of the highest veteran populations in the country.

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