President Obama waves after delivering remarks inside the 1st Aviation Support Battalion Hangar at Fort Bliss, Texas. (Photo: MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)
President Obama has signed an executive order aimed at reducing the rate of suicide and mental health disorders in veterans and troops by improving access to behavioral health care.
Addressing soldiers at Fort Bliss, Texas, on Friday, Obama said the initiative is part of an overall effort to maintain U.S. military superiority.
"We may be turning a page on a decade of war, but America's responsibility to you has only just begun," Obama said. "Just as we give you the best equipment and technology on the battlefield, we need to give you the best support at home."
The order directs cabinet agencies, including the departments of Veterans Affairs, Defense, Health and Human Services and Education, to work together to expand suicide prevention efforts and to fill vacancies for mental health jobs.
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The "Improving Access to Mental Health Services for Veterans, Service Members and Military Families" order also includes actions to improve access to mental health services for service members and veterans, including enhanced partnerships with community providers, increased VA staffing, and mental health research.
"If you are hurting, it's not a sign of weakness to seek help; it's a sign of strength. And we are going to help you remain strong - 'Army Strong,' " Obama said, referencing the service's advertising slogan in his speech before more than 5,000 service members at the 1st Aviation Support Battalion hangar at Fort Bliss.
Under the directive, VA must expand its veterans' crisis line capability by 50 percent by Dec. 31 and ensure that veterans who identify as being a danger to themselves or others connect with a trained mental health professional within 24 hours.
VA also is required to partner with DoD in developing and implementing a nationwide year-long suicide prevention campaign aimed at veterans.
The order also authorizes VA to expand programs based on veterans helping veterans, directing the department to hire 800 more peer-to-peer counselors, and it also directs VA to work with HHS to establish a pilot program that leverages community mental health resources to reduce the waiting times veterans often face when seeking mental health services.
VA has faced criticism for not doing enough to help veterans who need mental health treatment.
A report in April from VA's own inspector general said officials inflated success rates for providing timely services for veterans, reporting that 95 percent of new patients seeking mental health treatment received full evaluations for care within the department's required window of 14 days, when the IG found that just 49 percent were seen within that time frame.
Most faced an average wait time of 50 days, according to the IG.
Mental health concerns have plagued the military since at least 2004, when services' suicide rates started rising. About 18 veterans a day commit suicide, according to VA estimates.
The Army in July faced its worst month for suicides in at least three years; 26 active duty soldiers and 12 Army National Guard or Army Reserve members were suspected or confirmed to have died by suicide.
The Marine Corps suffered eight suicides in July, bringing its total for the year to 32 - matching its total for all of 2011.
This year, 55 Air Force members have committed suicide, while the Navy has had 39.
According to Rand Corp. think tank, nearly 19 percent of service members deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan meet diagnostic criteria for either post traumatic stress disorder or depression.