New study finds veterans struggle in transition to civilian life

Advocates call for holistic approach to vet health

WASHINGTON D.C. - Some people look at the military veteran Omar Gonzalez who jumped the White House fence recently and say: if only we had a higher fence. Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Pa., the only practicing psychologist in Congress, looks at the incident and says, “there was a need for treatment for this man, and he couldn’t get it.”

If a new study by the School of Social Work at the University of Southern California is any indication, Murphy has the right response.

The circumstances service members face upon leaving the military are, to say the least, very bleak.

Nearly two-thirds of veterans are unprepared for civilian life, the study says, and nearly eight in ten do not have a job lined up. Around 40 percent do not have a place to live, and many leave active duty with untreated physical or mental issues. In fact, the study found that about one-third have contemplated suicide.

The study focused only on veterans returning home to Los Angeles County, but an author of the study, retired Army colonel and USC professor Carl Castro, argues that these results can apply on a national level.

“What is important is that you have a job, a place to live, etc., regardless of location. In other words, not having a job in Texas is no better than not having a job in California. Everyone needs a job to have a successful transition,” said Castro.

Castro and his colleagues argue for a more holistic approach to helping veterans through the transition process. That means helping service members not only find jobs, but ensuring they have a place to live and promptly dealing with mental or physical illnesses.

He says the military’s mandated Transition Assistance Program, or TAP, should be extended, and that there needs to be greater collaboration between the  Department of Defense, Veterans Affairs and the local community where the veteran will be living associated to help service members make the transition to civilian life. 

Castro says veterans often do not get help until they hit rock bottom and, in many cases, often underestimate the physical and mental health issues they are dealing with.

“You tell them don’t minimize an injury or an illness you have. Because here, the implications for minimizing an illness or an injury…becomes catastrophic,” he said.

Rep. Murphy has authored a bill to overhaul how the U.S. treats the entire mental health system. Murphy says the bill, Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis, aims to provide treatment before tragedy, especially when it comes to helping veterans. The bill is still in committee.

Murphy wants to change the mental health system so that mental illness is treated like other diseases, such as heart disease or cancer.

“If we did the same thing for heart disease and said, well, we know you’re having serious heart problems and it looks like you’re beginning to get congestive heart failure, but call us back when you have a heart attack and then we’ll help you. That’s the way our system is,” he said.

Castro believes that changes made to the military’s transition assistance program could go a long way in helping veterans make the successful transition into civilian life. The program was created by an act of Congress.

“And they’re the ones who in some sense dictate the content of the training of that program…if it does take an act of Congress, literally, then it needs to be holistic and it needs to be focused on prevention,” said Castro.

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