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Why is VA Doing Such a Bad Job with PTSD?

Department of Veterans Affairs
Department of Veterans Affairs
Department of Veterans Affairs

Every day 22 veterans commit suicide in America. That’s almost one an hour, and the staff at the VA doesn’t seem to care. They blithely go on with their lives as if everything is just fine.

They put in their eight hours. They put a checkmark in the check box. What else do you want from them?

Changing that attitude will take a Herculean effort from everybody in the VA; from the Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric K. Shinseki, to the receptionist who greets veterans when they walk into a VA facility.

To get some idea of how bad the veteran suicide rate is, just do the math. There are 60 minutes in an hour, 24 hours in a day; that’s 1,440 minutes in a day. Divide that by 22 and you get 65.45 minutes.

Look at your watch or a clock, and note the time. Then come back in an hour and five minutes and think about how in that short span of time another American veteran is dead after committing suicide.

Now ask yourself if that’s a reasonable amount of time between suicides by veterans.

Ask yourself why our country is willing to send people off to war, but is not willing to deal with the terrible psychological wounds the troops bring home when they return from combat?

Those veterans are screaming for help, but nobody at the VA seems to be listening. The counselors at the VA are either burned out, or too busy being bureaucratic to notice.

It is not surprising that the good counselors at the VA are burned out. Some social workers estimate that a trained counselor can only work with veterans who have PTSD for three years before burn out sets in. But the VA has no plan to deal with that possibility.

How long would it take for you to burn out if you spent eight hours a day, five days a week, talking to people who:

  • Have nightmares and flashbacks in which they relive the worst moment in their lives.
  • Suddenly become angry or irritable, when a sight, a sound, or a smell triggers a flashback and causes them to relive the horrible event over and over again.
  • Struggle with family relationships because they are tormented by terrible memories that shake their brains like a baby rattle.

Rather than coming to terms with the severity of the problem, too often, when something goes wrong, counselors at the VA blame the veteran instead of asking themselves what they could have done differently.

Having troops returning home from combat with PTSD is not just an American problem, but other nations deal with it differently.

Last month, as the last Canadian soldiers returned home after being deployed in Afghanistan, two more soldiers committed suicide.

In response, Hamilton, Ontario’s newspaper, The Spectator, published an article about how PTSD is often a life sentence.

“When someone with PTSD commits suicide it is because they can no longer cope with their injuries. Unable to receive satisfactory treatment they take the only way they see out of their suffering.”

“Where is the equal treatment for PTSD victims? … We cry out against human rights abuses in other countries but deprive our victims of their right to proper health care, to a life without fear, to security of their person? It's time we helped these innocent victims instead of adding to their abuse.”

The author of the article, Roger Lee Westry, couldn’t have said it better.

As a society, we have thrown veterans with PTSD under the bus, and then asked the driver to step on the gas.

Unfortunately, the VA is right there in the middle of it, despite the first words in the Psychotherapist's Oath of the American Psychotherapy Association.

“I must first do no harm.”
Psychotherapist's Oath
American Psychotherapy Association

The situation is so bad, that last month former troops even stormed Capitol Hill to fight against suicides by veterans.

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has established Vet Centers, which are responsible for providing, “… a broad range of counseling, outreach, and referral services to combat Veterans and their families. Vet Centers guide Veterans and their families through many of the major adjustments in lifestyle that often occur after a Veteran returns from combat.”

The VA pays lip service to the treatment of PTSD, but three recent incidents at the Rochester, NY Vet Center illustrate what a bad job the VA is doing counseling veterans with PTSD.

Last fall, a VA bureaucrat in Rochester was working with an Iraq war veteran who couldn’t hold a job. The VA bureaucrat had helped the Iraq war veteran find a job three separate times, but the veteran had quit each job.

After the veteran quit the third job, the VA bureaucrat told the veteran, “Three strikes and you’re out.”

Even though not being able to hold a job is a classic symptom of PTSD, the VA bureaucrat blamed the veteran.

Blaming the veteran happens all too often at the VA. During a Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT) group session last year, a VA counselor said that, “It is alright to have a flashback or two.”

When one of the veterans in the group mentioned to the counselor that it is never okay to have a flashback, the counselor got defensive.

Instead of admitting to making a simple human mistake- and that the words had just come out wrong - the counselor blamed the veteran.

When the veteran mentioned the incident to the Vet Center’s Team Leader, he supported the counselor, instead of suggesting to his subordinate that a simple apology for a slip of the tongue was the appropriate way to deal with the situation.

The team leader blamed the veteran. In his eyes, the veteran had no right to get upset with one of his counselors.

The same team leader also blamed a veteran after another counselor at the Vet Center had done something that destroyed the marriage of a combat veteran with PTSD.

The combat veteran and his wife had gone to the VA for Couples Counseling.

During the counseling sessions, the wife became really emotional about some anger management issues that had happened a decade ago, long before the veteran even knew he had PTSD.

But the counselor seemed to get fixated on these old incidents, as if they were happening now. Instead of focusing on the present, the counselor focused entirely on the old incidents and wouldn’t let the veteran get a word in edgewise.

But when the veteran phone the counselor to express his concern, the counselor told him that she could not talk to him because she was now counseling the wife in single, one on one sessions.

That broke the rules. The couple’s counselor is not supposed to do that. And to make matters worse, the counselor convinced the wife to leave the veteran and destroy the marriage.

That left the combat veteran with PTSD alone in the house, and cut off from his family, a situation that is never good for someone with PTSD.

These things are day to day occurrences at the VA.

Unless there is a drastic culture change within the VA, America’s combat veterans will continue to commit suicide at an alarming rate.

The question is; does anybody care? Or will the problem simply slip out of the headlines, and leave the families of our combat veterans to grieve alone as they bury their dead?