Mental health care for Maine veterans falling short

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AUGUSTA — Maine veterans plagued with bad dreams and tough memories are falling through the cracks in a mental health care system that too often fails them, officials said Wednesday.

Sometimes suicidal veterans wind up sitting for days in hospital emergency rooms as they wait to get help from the federal Veterans Administration that routinely takes 10 days or more to schedule appointments for patients in crisis.

“If you’re relying on the VA to do anything, you might as well give up,” said Jerry DeWitt, who does veterans outreach at the Lewiston-based Tri-County Mental Health Services.

Rep. Jared Golden, D-Lewiston, proposed a new initiative to try to lend a hand by having the state hire eight social workers specifically to assist veterans to find the assistance they need.

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The 10 to 14 days that a new patient from Lewiston would have to wait to get an appointment at the VA, he said, “is not fast enough for someone who’s in a bad place.”

Such a long delay is “completely and totally unacceptable,” Sen. Brownie Carson, D-Harpswell, told the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee on Wednesday.

An average of 20 veterans commit suicide every day across the country, a 2016 VA study found. It’s a rate so alarming that the issue has been discussed from the presidential campaign trail to statehouses across America. But fixes remain elusive.

Golden’s measure would pump $1 million a year for the next two years to make it so Maine could “pitch in a little” to provide veterans a much-needed boost when they need a helping hand.

The director of Maine’s Bureau of Veterans’ Services, Adria Horn, said she’s concerned that Golden’s bill poses a logistical problem because she doesn’t have the office space, equipment, rules or oversight for what would be her agency’s first foray into providing clinical services.

But, she said, there are real deficiencies that could use attention, including the fact that Maine has no in-patient rooms for mentally ill veterans. They now have to go to a VA facility in Brockton, Massachusetts, Horn said.

Whether the state should be the one to step forward to fill part of the gap, however, is an issue that some, including Horn, wonder about.

Golden, who served in the Marines in Afghanistan and Iraq, said the VA does the best it can given its resources but it is “a vast bureaucratic system” that lets some slip through without aid.

He should know. He was one of them.

Golden said that when he left the service, one of his father’s cousins who knew the ropes dragged him to the VA to sign up soon after he got home to Maine. During his screening there, he said, he was asked about his dreams, unwanted memories, whether he was startled by loud booms and the like.

He told the psychiatrist that he was fine, a typical Marine answer.

But sometime later, he got a notice from the VA that it considered him to have post-traumatic stress disorder based on what the doctor saw. No other follow-up occurred, Golden said.

“I just went on my way in life. I got by all right,” the lawmaker said. He later wound up getting some counseling at college and then at a veterans center.

“I really didn’t trust the system,” Golden said, an attitude widely shared among veterans.

Several officials said veterans tend to self-medicate instead. Or, as Rep. Owen Casas, a Rockport independent who is also a veteran, put it,  “we go and drink ourselves into a stupor.”

One of the problems officials cited is that there are such a plethora of programs to assist veterans that it becomes difficult to navigate them all.

“There’s so many resources available for veterans that sometimes you don’t even know where to send them,” said Rep. Brad Farrin, R-Norridgewock.

Supporters of Golden’s bill said the new social workers would provide guidance and direction to veterans who are confused or frustrated by all the bureaucracy they face.

For Carson, wounded in Vietnam as a Marine years ago, the state has an obligation to try to help.

He said if Maine can save a few lives a year — or turn around the lives of veterans who are struggling — the million dollars Golden proposes to spend will prove to be a good investment.

“We will save many, many times the amount of money” it will cost, Carson said. “There’s a real need here and we need to think very carefully — and, frankly, generously — about how we meet it.”

scollins@sunjournal.com

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