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DoD Offers Best Mental Health Services Ever, Top Doc Reports

By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, May 12, 2006 – Misleading media coverage about the military's mental health services for troops deployed to or returned from Iraq loses sight of the fact that they're the best, most comprehensive ever provided, the Defense Department's top doctor said today.

"There is no military in history that has done more to address the mental health concerns of servicemembers than this current Department of Defense," Dr. William Winkenwerder Jr., assistant secretary of defense for health affairs, told American Forces Press Service.

Winkenwerder cited flaws in a new General Accountability Office study and said media coverage of its findings gives servicemembers the false impression that they're receiving less-than-the-best-quality mental health care services.

"The level of our effort and our outreach is unprecedented," he said. "We have broken new ground."

Part of that new ground -- the subject of the recent GAO study -- is a questionnaire that screens servicemembers for a variety of health issues, including indicators that they may be at risk for post-traumatic stress disorder. DoD has screened more than 1 million servicemembers through questionnaires and face-to-face interviews with medical professionals, both before, during and after their deployments to identify possible mental health problems and prevent or treat them, Winkenwerder noted.

However, the GAO study found that just 23 percent of the surveyed servicemembers whose responses showed they were potentially at risk were referred to mental health providers. What it didn't record was how many of those people were referred to other sources of care or support -- primary-care doctors, group counseling sessions, chaplains and other services, Winkenwerder noted.

GAO's conclusion and the media coverage of it is akin to saying that someone with a sore knee can only get proper treatment from an orthopedist, ignoring the whole spectrum of other treatment options, he said.

"Any medical researcher who looked at this would absolutely refute on the basis of what we know that there is some indication that people are not getting the follow-up care that they need," he said.

The report comes at a time when DoD is offering the most extensive mental health support in its history, Winkenwerder said. He cited several examples of the outreach being provided:

  • Placing mental health and combat -stress control teams in the combat theater to address needs that arise during deployments;
  • Sending three special study teams into the theater during the past three years to evaluate combat stress issues and recommend improvements in existing programs and policies to address them;
  • Designing and implementing numerous soldier and family support programs that identify problems early and help to prevent them; and
  • Introducing a new program to assess, not just mental health, but also overall health, family social and health concerns three to six months after redeployment.

"The bottom line is that we have model programs, and they are working exceptionally well, and they are an example for all others to follow," he said.

A visit earlier this week to Fort Lewis, Wash., confirmed that these programs are valued by the servicemembers they're designed to help. "I observed firsthand soldiers going through this program, and this process," Winkenwerder said. "It's an exemplary program."

He noted that commanders and servicemembers are giving it high marks. "They themselves say that the programs are helpful and valuable," he said.

"We are doing an unprecedented effort, breaking new ground (and) reaching out to people," Winkenwerder said. "And I think we have firsthand evidence that the programs are valued, that they are working, that they are having an impact from the surveys that we have done of the servicemembers themselves."

Portraying the program as anything less only hurts the people it's designed to serve, he said. "It's unfortunate that this has been characterized in a way that, in my judgment, could be damaging to people's perception about the level of support that is out there now," he said. "Servicemembers and family members may read this and think we're not doing a good job. And nothing could be further from the truth."

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Dr. William Winkenwerder Jr.

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