Soldiers’ Use of Mental Health Care Up as VA Struggles to Provide

Close-up of soldier's faceIn the wake of a Veterans Administration (VA) scandal that paints a grim portrait of health care for veterans, the results of a recent study suggest that struggling veterans are increasingly seeking mental health services. This increased demand may help reduce the stigma some veterans experience when they seek mental health care, but the VA system continues to struggle to meet veterans’ needs.

Veterans’ Use of Mental Health Services

A new study published in the American Journal of Public Health tracked changes in veterans’ use of mental health care over time. Researchers found that use of mental health services by veterans in 2011 was at 15%, almost double the 8% rate reported in 2003 at the beginning of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. More than half of veterans experienced stigma surrounding their decision to seek mental health care in 2003, compared to 44% in 2011.

The study results weren’t all positive, though. One in four soldiers reported symptoms of depression and posttraumatic stress (PTSD), but two-thirds of veterans who experience mental health concerns don’t seek appropriate care. 

Ongoing Problems with the VA System

At a time when more veterans need mental health care than ever, the VA continues to be in crisis. Soldiers frequently experience long wait times before receiving care, and VA clinics report massive increases in their caseloads, due in part, perhaps, to the fact that soldiers from previous generations are increasingly seeking PTSD care. Older soldiers make up 75% of veterans seeking PTSD treatment.

In addition, veterans who do make it into VA clinics may not get the care they need. In 2012, the government spent $3 billion on PTSD services for veterans, but there’s little information about whether the treatment veterans receive actually works. A recent congressional report found that veterans may receive haphazard, piecemeal care, and that the outcomes of various treatment programs are not tracked. More than 6,000 mental health workers have been trained in cognitive processing therapy and prolonged exposure therapy—evidence-based treatments for PTSD. But not all veterans get these treatments, and some may even be receiving ineffective treatments. 

A Switch to Private Care?

Some politicians have argued that allowing veterans to choose their own private care providers would remedy the problems with the VA system. One bill would allow veterans to seek private care if they live more than 40 miles from a VA hospital or have to wait longer than 30 days for care. The final details of the bill have yet to be ironed out, though, and the VA itself has expressed concern about whether such a measure will improve care or just increase costs.


  1. Brayfield, B. (2014, June 27). VA struggles to meet demand for mental health services. KPCC Health. Retrieved from
  2. Doheny, K. (2014, July 18). Soldiers’ use of mental health services up, stigma down. HealthDay News. Retrieved from
  3. Philpott, T. (2014, July 21). VA asks Congress not to open private sector floodgates. JD News. Retrieved from
  4. Zarembo, A. (2014, June 20). Government’s PTSD treatment for veterans lacking, report finds. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved from 

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  • Joey


    July 24th, 2014 at 11:56 AM

    I am shocked at the amount of mistreatment that has faced so many of our veterans and that really in just the last year have we begun an open and honest conversation about the troubles that so many of them are embroiled in. Mental health care is important for anyone and the difficulty that our vets are having with receiving pretty much any kind of decent treatment is pretty appalling. These are people who have given up their own lives to at some point fight for and defend ours and this is the thanks that they get? I hope that at least now since the conversation has started that improvements will be seen soon, but I am sure that just like everything that is coming from the government change is only going to come slowly.

  • Theo


    July 24th, 2014 at 4:33 PM

    So we know that the need is there, now looks like the perfect time to do a complete overhaul of the way that the entire VA system is managed. I mean, who is going to complain about those changes at this point? Probably the only thing that most of us can all agree on is that the system is seriously broken and the time is not to step in and fix it.

  • Stan B.

    Stan B.

    July 25th, 2014 at 4:25 AM

    We think that socialized medicine is a great thing until we see it working in the real world and then begin to undersand that you then have longer wait times to even get in with a physician than you ever would with private health care. You see that the care that you receive may not be all it’s cracked up to be, and you understand that you might not even be able to see a doctor that you choose, just someone on your prescribed list. Now does this sound like good healthcare to you? No? Well then we must realize that this is the kind of run around that our veterans have been experiencing for a long time and it is time that they got more than this. I wouldn’t wnat this for myself so why do the ones who have made the ultimate sacrifice have to settle for it?

  • Janna


    July 26th, 2014 at 1:19 PM

    I don’t understand the mentality behind the facts that supports the reality that soldiers who need the help still don’t seek it out the way that they should. I know that the system is broken, I think that we are all beginning to see that it is not perfect by any stretch. But they do have something which is more than what a lot of people can say and still many do not take advantage of those services. Is it because they are too proud or don’t know what would happen to them careerwise if they made that choice to seek out help, or is it that they don’t know what they even need to ask for when they do? There definitely needs to be more guidance and availability of services there for them but they also have the be willing to try to get past some of those shameful feelings that they may still have about seeking out mental health assistance because we all need it from time to time in life and there is absolutley nothing to hide just because you do.

  • claudia


    July 30th, 2014 at 3:05 PM

    If the actual usage numbers are up then think about how many could be denied services just from long wait times and unavailability of providers

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