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A Former Congressman Is Working To Help Veterans By Tackling Mental Illness

The Huffington Post The Huffington Post 11/11/2015 Kim Bellware
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A tragic reality for U.S. veterans and their families is that once a serviceman or woman returns home, they may not remain safe, or even free -- all because of untreated mental health problems. 

"These veterans come home and they're POWS -- they're hostages to the illness," former Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-R.I.) told The Huffington Post Wednesday. Kennedy, who founded the Kennedy Forum, a mental health policy incubator, was in Chicago on Veterans' Day for the annual conference of the forum's Illinois branch.

While  6,828 military personnel have died in the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the number of veterans who returned home only to die by suicide is estimated to be about four times higher.  About  10 percent of veterans end up behind bars .

"We take away their freedom when they get home," Kennedy said, referring to veterans caught in the nation's mental health crisis. "This is an epidemic."

The former congressman discussed post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury and other mental conditions that veterans suffer from, noting that these afflictions are often referred to as "invisible injuries."

"They're not invisible," Kennedy said.

Despite the prevalence of mental illness among veterans, Kennedy said treatment is far from adequate: Conditions like heart disease, diabetes or cancer are viewed and treated much differently -- and much better -- than mental health issues. 

"We have a double standard of health care for those seeking care for mental illness," Kennedy said. "You have one standard of care for health care and an entirely different substandard of care for brain illness. It's the most important organ in the body, and we disregard it." 

Kennedy noted that many veterans will never seek treatment with the Department of Veterans Affairs because they're National Guard or Army reservists, meaning they may not be eligible for the complete spectrum of VA health benefits. And even when veterans do seek help, he said, insurance companies often don't reimburse treatment for mental illness the way they do for other chronic conditions. 

"It's hard to get benefits for an illness if you can't see it," Kennedy said.  

The U.S. National Library of Medicine concluded in 2007 that veterans are at a greater risk for suicide, Kennedy said, noting that the risk is exacerbated when treatment is inadequate or nonexistent.

In the absence of mental health treatment, it's not uncommon for veterans (who are also often dealing with other re-entry challenges like unemployment or divorce) to wind up in jail -- often, Kennedy said, because untreated mental illness manifests itself in criminal behaviors like substance abuse. 

When it comes to veteran incarceration rates, Kennedy said figures are only tracked at the state and federal level, meaning an untold number of veterans wind up in jail at the county and local levels.

"What's really shocking is that we don't have real-time info on how many of our heroes are locked up," he said. 

Criminalizing symptoms of mental illness not only hurts veterans, but also needlessly expends taxpayer money that could be better spent on preventative solutions, Kennedy said. 

Kennedy said the situation will improve when civilians -- in fields ranging from criminal justice to finance -- join the fight. 

"People need to be advocates for coverage of mental illness and addiction," he said.

Kennedy also encourages community leaders to see what initiatives are working and scale them for their own areas. As an example, he pointed to Miami-Dade County, where Circuit Judge Steve Leifman is among those leading efforts to invest in solutions that will help veterans before they get into the criminal justice system. Kennedy said Miami-Dade’s pilot program, spearheaded by Leifman, has reduced the jail population and recidivism rates. 

Looking to the future, Kennedy said his incubator is drafting advisories that he hopes 2016 presidential candidates will embrace.

"It should easily be a bipartisan issue:  You win with Democrats because you're helping people, and you win with Republicans because you're saving taxpayer dollars," he said. "It's a constituency that gets everyone feeling compassionate." 

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