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VA struggles to meet demand for mental health services

Kris Skinner is a veteran who has seen great progress dealing with PTSD through alternative programs outside of Veterans Affairs hospitals. He has received help from the Soldiers Project and is active in the Ride 2 Recovery program, which enables veterans to participate in long distance group bike rides. The rides serve as a form of therapy for people dealing with PTSD, Skinner said.  He retired from the Army as Captain in the 10th Mountain Division after serving in Kosovo and Iraq.
Benjamin Brayfield/KPCC
Kris, who asked that his last name be withheld, said the caseload at the VA medical center in West Los Angeles was "incredibly high." He has received counseling through The Soldiers Project for the last three years.

There's been a huge increase in demand for mental health services at the Veterans Administration, as veterans return from the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. The VA healthcare system, and non-profit organizations that are intended to serve as safety nets, are struggling to meet that demand.

"Their caseload is incredibly high," said Kris, a veteran who sought mental health treatment at the VA medical center in West Los Angeles. Kris, who asked that his last name be withheld, served on the peacekeeping mission in Kosovo, and was part of the invasion force in Iraq.

"Often times, you're going to be dealing with a resident, or somebody straight out of school, and it's difficult to get somebody with that experience you need to get proper treatment – to really make a difference in your recovery," Kris said.

The West L.A. medical center is a teaching hospital, so residents do treat veterans, but they’re under the constant supervision of an attending psychiatrist, officials said.

An increase in patients

In the VA Greater L.A. Healthcare System, which includes the West L.A. medical center and 10 outpatient clinics, there was a 40 percent increase in the number of veterans seeking mental health care between 2007 and 2013.

In the VA Long Beach Healthcare System, which includes Long Beach Medical Center and five outpatient clinics, there’s been an even larger increase during the same period: Nearly 60 percent.

"We've been enrolling them at a very high rate, and providing services in mental health," said Dr. Lawrence Albers, chief of mental health for the Long Beach VA system. "And increasing our staff, increasing our programs, and really doing whatever we can to meet the needs of the returning combat veterans."

Albers said Long Beach has hired almost 100 additional mental health clinical and support staff since 2005.

Officials with the Greater L.A. VA did not provide specific numbers, but said they increased the number of psychologists and psychiatrists on staff by almost 12 percent in recent years.

Safety net programs strained

The Greater L.A. VA has also looked for other solutions, including referring vets to psychotherapists in the community. The overflow is spilling onto non-profit groups like The Soldiers Project, a mental health safety net for veterans who can't – or won't – access treatment through the VA.

In 2013, The Soldiers Project received 65 referrals from local VAs. It's received nearly that many in just the first six months of this year.

"I suspect that it does have to do with the fact that the VA is completely overwhelmed," said The Soldiers Project founder Judith Broder.

"They can't provide what they've been tasked to provide and it's not because of ill will," she said. "There aren't enough people, there's not enough time, a big bureaucracy moves slowly."

She said The Soldiers Project used to be able to connect a vet with a mental health counselor within 24 hours. Now, with the increased caseload, the wait can last up to two weeks.

Feeling better

Kris, the veteran who served in Kosovo and Iraq, connected with The Soldiers Project about three years ago. It set him up with ongoing counseling.

"The great thing was… it was outside the realm of the Veterans Administration," he said. "I didn't have to go to the VA for treatment. Just going into that building – West LA – was a trigger [for his mental health problems]."

Kris also started cycling.

"Slowly and surely, I started feeling better physically, and what exercise allowed me to do was completely stop taking these medications that were prescribed to me, predominantly from the Veterans Administration," he said.

Kris said the therapy he gets at The Soldiers Project – combined with cycling – has helped him turn his life around. He ended up getting a job with Ride 2 Recovery, a group that helps injured veterans rehabilitate through cycling.