NORTHAMPTON, Mass. (WWLP) - The increasing instances of suicide in the military are prompting an aggressive effort to hire more mental health professionals.
The White House says that since September 11th, more than two million service members have been deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan. And as they return home, a host of mental issues follows them. These service members spend years training for combat. But their fight doesn't end once they're discharged.
"They think that about 20% of returning veterans will show signs and symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)," said Chief of Mental Health Services at the VA, Dr. Dana Weaver.
Weaver heads a staff of more than 110 mental health professionals at the VA of Central Western Massachusetts . A recent executive order signed in August by President Barack Obama will add another five positions to the Leeds complex. Weaver says for every clinician hired, an estimated 250 to 500 veterans could be served.
In addition to improved access, for the first time ever, 135 medical schools will share research on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI).
The push for more access to services comes after a swelling number of veterans and service members with mental health issues. According to Department of Defense figures, the suicide rate of active-duty soldiers doubled between 2003 and 2010.
And the Centers for Disease and Control says 18 veterans or active members take their own lives every day. This year, those numbers are expected to outstrip the average.
"A big piece of this is the veteran's national crisis line . Everyday we receive calls from veterans who are in our area. And within 24 hours I will find the veteran, talk to the veteran, adjust whatever issues that they are dealing with," said Suicide Prevention Coordinator, James Bastien.
Bastien says there have been 60 suicide attempts in the last five years at the Leeds VA, a dramatic low compared to the national average. And the challenge comes in the outreach as not enough veterans are seeking help. Less than a third of the more than 100,000 veterans in the five counties of western and central Massachusetts are registered with the VA.
Veterans at UMass say many are reluctant to sign up for mental health services, fearing a social stigma.
"You don't really have necessarily anonymity when speaking to a health professional. As much as they tell you, 'yeah you do', they still have to report to the commander," said veteran Vincent Sarno, who served in the United States Air Force for 13 years.
Sarno is finishing his bachelors in business. He makes an effort to meet other veterans daily, inside a tiny 120 square-foot drop-in center at UMass. It's a way of coping and socializing.
"It's a safe place for them [veterans] they can come in here and vent about what's going on around campus. They can speak the military language in here, basically be with people who are like them," said veteran Brendan Davenport who hopes the center expands.
UMass was recently ranked among the top military friendly schools in the country. And it is that population of veterans the VA is trying to connect with.
The agency recently launched a new social media site called Make the Connection. To learn more about it, click here .