A beautiful Department of Veterans Affairs Mental Health Center, but is it enough?

VCS ED quoted.  By GARY PETERSON AND MARK EMMONS  Contra Costa Times, Walnut Creek, Calif. Published: June 22, 2012 Palo Alto The new Mental Health Center at the Palo Alto Veterans Hospital in Palo Alto, opens Friday, June 22. The Mental Health Center is a 90,000-square-foot facility with 80 beds that includes 20 acute psychiatric beds and is part of a nationwide push by the VA system that is pto cope with the mounting flood of vets returning home from the Iraq and Afghanistan war theaters. US DEPARTMENT OF VETERAN AFFARIS

Chris Hurt walked the wide-open halls of the new Mental Health Center at the VA Palo Alto campus, admiring the airy feel of an 80-bed unit that features enclosed courtyards and even an area to play basketball.

The acute inpatient psychiatric facility, he said, is like “night and day” from the old, claustrophobic building next door where he recently spent two weeks.

“Every single person here goes through moments where they’re so miserable that they just want to get out,” said Hurt, 25, who served two tours in Iraq as an Army specialist. “I don’t think anybody wants to be here. But this is better because it’s more like a hospital and less like a psych ward.”

The 76,000-square-foot center, which will be unveiled in a ribbon-cutting ceremony Friday afternoon, is a tangible example of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ national expansion of mental health services to meet the record number of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans seeking help for emotional problems like post-traumatic stress disorder — the signature, invisible wound of these conflicts.

“There’s a lot of people,” Hurt added, “who will be coming out a lot worse off than me.”

But while the VA is in the process of hiring 1,900 mental-health workers, the government agency has endured withering criticism from many veterans and advocacy groups for being behind the curve in helping America’s newest warriors — especially when it comes to resolving a crushing backlog of disability claims.

“I’m sorry, but this is all smoke and mirrors,” said Shad Meshad, co-founder and president of the National Veterans Foundation. “There are 2.4 million people who have served in these wars. There’s a tsunami of mental health issues coming and will be with us for decades. It’s great that the people who use these 80 beds have a shot. But as a country we have yet to put our arms around this problem.”

Count Bob Handy, a World War II Navy veteran and chairman of Veterans United for Truth, among the skeptics.


“You can build all the edifices in the world, and if you don’t have the staff to do what they’re supposed to be doing, you could be doing it in an old World War II Quonset hut,” Handy said. “They’re spending all this money on visible things when they’re not fixing the problem.”

The VA is struggling to treat an unprecedented number of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who are seeking treatment for mental disorders — almost 425,000 of the nearly 1.5 million military personnel who have left the service since the decadelong conflicts began. A recent VA report indicated that 245,658 have been examined for potential PTSD.

That condition results from the insidious nature of conflicts where troops

are in a state of hypervigilance to protect themselves from unseen threats such as improvised explosive devices. Symptoms include flashbacks, mood changes, sleep problems and emotional numbness to the civilian world.

Handy’s organization and another advocacy group, Veterans for Common Sense, sued the VA in 2007, contending it is an unresponsive bureaucracy that needlessly delayed treatment of veterans for PTSD.

While the suit revealed that the VA had knowingly underreported veteran suicides — it now estimates 18 per day — last month the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower court’s position that it wasn’t a matter for the courts to decide. But the court did criticize the VA for “unchecked incompetence,” and the case may head to the Supreme Court.

But in other quarters, there is acknowledgment of progress as shown by the new Palo Alto facility, the VA’s intent to increase staff, and a recent Department of Defense decision to review PTSD diagnoses for members of all branches of the military dating to the Afghanistan War’s beginning.

“Yes, absolutely,” said Rep. Jerry McNerney, D-Stockton, a veterans rights proponent who doesn’t hesitate to criticize the VA. “In Congress we’ve certainly increased the resources available to the VA to address these kinds of problems. The VA is clearly getting the importance of this issue and how widespread it is.”

Added Patrick Bellon, a veteran and executive director for Veterans for Common Sense: “Credit where it’s due. It seems like they’re taking the problem more seriously. They’re being more proactive. I think they’re making an honest effort to learn from their mistakes of the past.”

Dr. Jerome Yesavage, the Palo Alto VA’s associate chief of staff for mental health and a Stanford University professor of psychiatry, said the system now is better equipped to deal with the growing need.

“There’s been a huge effort made to de-stigmatize mental-health problems by the VA and military,” Yesavage said. “The VA is much more organized to be a welcoming place for veterans with these problems.”

While Bellon does have doubts about the VA’s goal of increased staffing because the jobs are short term and not necessarily attractive to medical professionals, the hope is new state-of-the-art facilities will be a recruiting tool.

The $60 million Mental Health Center is part of a $1 billion construction boom at the Palo Alto facility over the next eight years. Another centerpiece will be a 174,000-square-foot rehabilitation center — scheduled to open in August 2014 — that will house the hospital’s polytrauma center, which has been treating some of the most grievously wounded troops since the wars began.

Yesavage said the newest building should largely be populated by younger veterans and will treat patients with severe emotional problems who might pose a threat to themselves or others. Because many of these patients are hospitalized involuntarily, three of the four wards are locked units and the entire building is designed with safety features to prevent suicides.

Paul Rieckhoff, founder and executive director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, believes that the new Mental Health Center and other coming facilities in Palo Alto are important if the VA, nationally, hopes to catch up to the growing demand for services.

“I’m hopeful that this is something good because I think the rest of the VA looks to Palo Alto for leadership,” Rieckhoff said. “If Palo Alto can make this work, it can be a powerful model for the rest of the country.”

Hurt said the hospital has made a difference in his life. A native of the Central Valley town of Ripon, Hurt voluntarily admitted himself after family members convinced him that he needed to seek help after he spoke of hearing voices.

“We come back from war and everything just seems so normal,” said Hurt, who served 27 months in Iraq. “That just throws us off. We try to act like nothing’s wrong when something is wrong.”

Released from the VA on Monday, Hurt said he hopes to come back in August when the new building is opened to patients.

“But just as a visitor,” he said.



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