I served in the Air Force as a registered nurse from 2011 to 2014. I’ll never forget the day I was working in the emergency department when an active duty service member was rolled in on a gurney, heavily sedated and in four-point restraints after becoming intoxicated and experiencing flashbacks from deployment that were so severe that he became agitated and 911 had to be called for help.

In the same emergency department, I worked with a quirky, hardworking, no-nonsense nurse in her early 30s with her whole life ahead of her. She ended up getting tasked for a deployment to a forward operating base, or FOB, where she would serve as an operating room nurse. She would write us often about her experiences. They would make even an emergency room nurse cringe — the minimal sleep, and mass trauma she was seeing on the front lines. There were times her FOB would be under fire, she’d be woken from a dead sleep and had to take cover.

When she came home, she was not that same quirky nurse I had worked with previously; she was struggling with severe post-traumatic stress disorder and insomnia that made it hard to function and adjust back to her previous nursing role.

My husband is a combat veteran, and from his unit alone two veterans have already been lost to suicide and substance abuse.

I returned to civilian life to work as a psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner providing psychiatric evaluations, diagnosis, prescription medications and counseling services. I have seen firsthand the effects of war on those that have served, the failure of our military to educate and prepare our servicemen and women for psychiatric symptoms they may experience, and the devastation of undiagnosed or untreated psychiatric concerns such as depression, anxiety and PTSD. These diagnoses are the aftermath of being exposed to situations and trauma that many couldn’t fathom.

Since the Iraq and Afghanistan wars began, there has been an increase in PTSD, traumatic brain injuries, substance abuse, homelessness and veteran suicide. Veterans face multiple stressors, including combat exposure, reintegration into civilian life, and a heightened vulnerability to psychopathology such as depression and PTSD. Current statistics show that approximately 30 percent of veterans returning from Operation Enduring Freedom/Operation Iraqi Freedom meet criteria for PTSD. The Iraq and Afghanistan wars resulted in a national priority to ensure adequate mental health care for those who have served.

Recent studies show that of the total amount of suicides in the United States, 22 percent are veteran suicides. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has made recent initiatives to combat this steadily increasing statistic. In 2012, the Veterans Health Administration developed their Strategic Plan for Suicide Prevention. However, as mental health awareness is becoming more commonplace, more veterans are becoming aware of the need to seek help, and unfortunately the VA is struggling to keep up with the demand. We need accessible mental health services for veterans if we are ever going to tackle the suicide epidemic.

Veterans struggling with depression, anxiety, PTSD or suicidality should not face long wait times to access mental health services. Current wait times at the VA are said to be up to six months before a veteran can access a mental health provider. Veterans need timely treatment with psychiatric medication management as well as psychotherapy.

The bill S.1881 — Prioritizing Veterans Access to Mental Health Care Act of 2017 — was introduced in the Senate in September 2017. This bill was referred to the Committee on Veteran’s Affairs and has yet to be acted on further.

This bill will amend the Veterans Access, Choice, and Accountability Act of 2014 to allow a veteran to receive mental health care at a non-department of Veterans Affairs (VA) facility as long as the veteran is able to provide a written statement that they were unable to access timely mental health care at the VA. Passing this bill will allow our veterans to receive urgent psychiatric care, to help treat their depression, anxiety and PTSD symptoms before reaching the point of suicidality.

We can do better for our veterans. You and your family can make a difference. Every letter to Congress counts. This Veterans Day, make a difference — write a simple letter to your congressman or woman and tell them that our veterans are too important, and they should vote yes S.1881 Prioritizing Veterans Access to Mental Health Care Act of 2017.

Congress sent them to war — it is time to help our veterans.

Olivia Marson lives in West Gardiner.

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