This blog was originally posted on The Huffington Post 9/25/13. For the original link, please click here
We have seen the tragic headlines reporting how 12 innocent Americans were killed, and several others injured during a hideous mass shooting at a Navy Yard in D.C. Although this terrible event has received a lot of media attention, it’s sad to say that it has paled in comparison to the social media “hits” Miley Cyrus’ got for her half-naked twerking performance at the VMAs.
Americans are not apathetic. I believe we care a great deal about our country, especially when bad things happen. It’s depressing to follow the ongoing string of news stories all linking to severe mental illness. Most of us feel powerless on what to do. Washington has become so broken; we are losing faith that those in charge know how to fix things
Over 1 billion dollars (actually 1.4 billion) of government money has been spent on mental health research. I don’t think I’m alone in my conclusion that what ever we are doing (or learning), isn’t working…
Last month I had the opportunity to hear Obama address the U.S. Marines at Camp Pendleton. Under tight security, we had to enter the hangar where the speech was, and wait hours before he arrived. As you could imagine, you have a lot of time to chat with those around you. A young Marine and his wife were standing behind me. After talking for a while, I told them I was a psychotherapist. He shared how he recently attended anger management sessions that were very helpful. I’m always interested in hearing therapeutic success stories, so I asked what brought him to the point that he decided to ask for help. Slightly embarrassed, he pointed to his wife and said, “She threatened to leave me if I didn’t do it.” She added, “He was popping off at everyone and everything. Now he talks about how he’s feeling and he’s a lot happier.” I love this story… guy needs help, gets it, and now all is good.
Not so fast… turns out there is more to this story. When the Staff Sgt. called Military One Source for a referral, they asked for his name, rank and identification number. His response was “I thought this was supposed to be confidential?” He panicked and hung up. Lucky for him, his wife was no push over. She understood his concerns about how getting help might hurt his career, but was more concerned that his anger would ruin their marriage. After searching around, they found the DSTRESS website (hotline for Marines) had links to local providers. He found one close by, scheduled an appointment on his own, and paid cash for the sessions (the government spends loads of money funding these programs so service members can attend for free). At least this Marine persevered, unlike most who would have given up after the first negative experience.
Back to the hangar… I eventually started talking with the woman in front of me. Turns out she is a psychologist on base who didn’t have any patients scheduled for the day, so last-minute decided to hear Obama. Having spent many years in private practice, I know firsthand that if you don’t have patients scheduled, you aren’t making any money. This psychologist, on the other hand, is a salaried contractor, “which is good, because it’s often slow,” she added. I’m confused, all I ever hear is how backlogged the system is, how long people have to wait to be seen, etc. How could she have no patients scheduled? I didn’t need to ask her. I already knew the answer.
It’s the same reason why Aaron Alexis (Navy Yard shooter) was able to renew his secret-level security clearance in July after having multiple arrests involving gun misuse, bouts of anger management, and history of psychological issues. I call it, six degrees of broken Washington. Turns out the same company (USIS) that investigated Alexis for his clearance, also did the 2011 investigation of Edward Snowden (former NSA systems analyst who leaked security documents). USIS dominates the background check industry, taking in $195 million government payments last year, and $215 million this year.
We have a broken military mental health system. I wrote an entire book about it last year, The Inside Battle: Our Military Mental Health Crisis. I am a huge advocate for proactive counseling, and feel strongly that it’s the answer to so many of these problems. We spend billions of dollars a year on military mental health care (nobody seems to know the exact number), and many of these programs (in my opinion) are worthless (I can’t find a nicer way to put it). Only 1 percent of our country currently serves in the military. Since the draft ended in the early ’70s, the divide between military and civilian communities continues to grow further apart. Most of us have very little understanding of military life & culture. Yet at the same time, civilians provide 70 percent of the mental health care for Active Duty and 100 percent of mental health care for veterans. It’s no wonder why service members often have a hard time establishing rapport with counselors.
To take it one step further… the majority of providers are contracted by large insurance companies who earn substantial amounts of money from the government for executing these contracts. Unfortunately, the clinicians receive a small percentage of the hourly wage that the insurance company collects for their work, often weeding out good counselors because reimbursements are low. Additionally, these same insurance companies are some of the most powerful special interest and lobbying groups at the Capitol, (6 degrees of broken Washington).
How do we fix something that is broken beyond our control? On the other hand, doing nothing is no longer an option. One of my favorite sayings is, “politics it too important to leave to the politicians.” As American citizens it’s our responsibility to make domestic issues a priority. We need to speak up and advocate for a better and stronger mental health system. We need to step away from party lines (these are both Democrat and Republican problems). Most importantly we need to care. Every one of us needs to have skin in the game. The mental health of our service members is too important to leave to the military.