Most Vets Don’t Know What Mental Health Services VA Offers. So Here You Go

Veterans Benefits
Getty Images/John Moore

Roughly half of all post-9/11 veterans who may need mental health care do not seek it through the Department of Veterans Affairs or in the private sector, according to a recent report by the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.


Alarmingly, the report also says a significant number of veterans are unaware of the services available to them from the Veterans Health Administration — the VA’s medical arm.

Veterans who need mental health care but haven’t sought VA help cite several reasons, including “that they do not know how to apply for VA mental health care benefits, they are unsure whether they are eligible, or they are unaware that VA offers these benefits,” according to the Congressionally mandated Jan. 31 report.

“I was dismayed to learn how many veterans didn’t know how to access care,” Ralph Bozella, Chairman the of Veterans Affairs and Rehabilitation Commission for The American Legion, told Task & Purpose. “The VA has done a great job advertising their mental healthcare services on the web and via social media.”

But, he added, “At this point, I think the entire veteran community needs to do more to ensure veterans in need link up with the care they require. We all need to play a more active role here.”

To help with that, here’s a list of mental health services the VA provides to recently transitioned veterans.

Are you a combat vet?

Veterans who served in a combat zone can receive medical services — including mental health care — for five years through the VA, beginning the day of their discharge. This isn’t the same as having a service-connected disability rating; instead, think of it as free health insurance. Eligible vets will have free care and medications for any condition that might be related to their service; there's no enrollment fee or premium, but you do have to cover copayments. This also opens you up to the VA's CHOICE program, which means you can receive care through a private-sector specialist at the VA's expense, not yours.

Soon, every transitioning vet can receive a year of mental health care through the VA.

Last month President Donald Trump signed the executive order “Supporting Our Veterans During Their Transition from Uniformed Service to Civilian Life.” It expands VA mental health care services to the 60% of recently separated vets who were previously deemed ineligible — usually because they lack a verified service-connected disability or service in a combat zone. Beginning in March, all transitioning service members with an honorable discharge will be eligible for 12 months of mental health care through the VA. Though the details of the program are still being worked out, veterans will be eligible to receive care at VA facilities — or in the private sector through CHOICE, if a local clinic can’t meet their needs.

Related: Here’s What We Know About Trump’s Executive Order To Combat Veteran Suicide »

Emergency mental health care is available for veterans with OTH discharges.

Though the executive order provides a year of care to many veterans, it doesn’t cover those with “bad paper” discharges — punitive discharges that preclude access to Veteran Affairs benefits, like education and health care. But last March, the VA launched a separate program offering emergency mental health services for veterans with other-than-honorable discharges. Though not all vets with bad paper are eligible, those with an OTH discharge in need of emergency mental health care can receive treatment through the Veterans Health Administration for up to 90 days — inpatient, residential, or outpatient care.

Community-based vet centers are an option, too.

Established in 1979, vet centers offer individual and group counseling on a range of topics for veterans, service members, and their families who have served on active duty in any combat theater; experienced a military sexual trauma; served as part of an unmanned aerial vehicle crew and provided direct support to combat operations; or provided emergency medical care or performed mortuary services while on active duty. The staff at vet centers also offer support for those looking to file a claim with the VA — though you don’t need to have a disability rating or be enrolled to receive counseling.

The VA offers much more if you’re enrolled in their system, though.

Veterans who qualify to register with the Veterans Health Administration enjoy a variety of mental health services. These include counseling, therapy, and, often, a treatment plan that includes prescribed medication. The range of coverage is fairly expansive, with experts able to offer support to veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression, substance abuse, and stress, among other concerns. Additionally, the VA offers short-term inpatient care for vets suffering from life-threatening mental illness; outpatient care to a psychological rehabilitation and recovery center; video conferencing with a care provider; and residential rehab programs.

If you need immediate help, or just someone to talk to, resources are always available.

For those in need of immediate support, responders with the Veterans Crisis Line can be reached by calling 1-800-273-8255 and pressing 1; via text, by sending a message to 838255; or online. The conversations are confidential and the line is open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week year-round, and the staff is trained to assist veterans of all ages and circumstances.

UPDATE: This story was updated to include information on the services provided at Department of Veterans Affairs Vet Centers. (2/5/2018; 10:51 am)

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