By: Leroy Garcia

Nov. 11, 2018

Not all wounds are visible. Too many veterans suffer in silence from mental wounds related to their military service.

Today, we celebrate the more than 400,000 veterans in Colorado and more than 20 million veterans across this county. I served in Iraq in the United States Marine Corps for more than six years, and ensuring that our veterans are taken care of is something I care about deeply.

The reality is that too many of our veterans, nearly 50 percent according a recent study by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, don’t get the mental health care they desperately need and have earned — through either the Department of Veterans Affairs or private practices. The lack of access to mental health services is a major contributing factor to a number of troubling issues facing veterans including high rates of suicide, substance abuse, and homelessness.

The suicide rate among U.S. veterans increased almost 26 percent from 2005 to 2016 and the suicide rate for veterans is 1.5 times greater than those who have never served in the military, according to data recently released by the Department of Veterans Affairs. Roughly 20 veterans across the country take their own lives every day.

Substance abuse is also becoming more prevalent among our veterans as a result of the mental and physical injuries sustained while deployed. Too many return from overseas without the necessary tools and resources they need to readjust to civilian life. Studies show that drug and alcohol abuse among veterans is higher than in the general civilian population. Veterans are also twice as likely to die from accidental overdoses from addictive painkillers as non-veterans, according to federal data.

These statistics are troubling and clearly show there is a massive unmet need for mental health services for our veterans. Something needs to be done. One veteran suicide or even one overdose a year is one too many. These men and women sacrificed for our country and deserve better. While the Department of Veterans Affairs is the primary provider of both mental and physical health care to veterans, they aren’t always able to help every veteran in need.

Making sure that veterans get the care they need has been personally very frustrating as a state senator because we do not have jurisdiction over veterans services; however, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t act. That’s why we’ve been working to expand mental health services to veterans and non-veterans alike across Colorado.

In the General Assembly, we’ve worked to establish a community transition specialist program that coordinates the referrals made by behavior health facilities of high-risk individuals to transition specialists. We modified the Colorado health service corps program to expand access to behavioral health care providers. We also created the Fort Lyon Supportive Residential Community, a holistic program designed to help those struggling with homelessness and its underlying causes like addiction, substance abuse, and a lack of job training and opportunities. Since 2013, more than 700 people — many of whom are homeless veterans — have entered the program and the initial results have been encouraging.

I’m also encouraged by Gov John Hickenlooper’s budget proposal released last week, which showed a commitment to investing in mental health services for every Coloradan. The budget proposal outlined resources to enhance the Colorado Crisis System, a 24-hour mental health crisis hotline; funding to make improvements to the Colorado Mental Health Institutes in Pueblo and Fort Logan; and pay increases for direct care staffers.

In addition to governmental efforts, there are innovations happening in the private sector and partners who are stepping up to meet this need, like the Cohen Veterans Network clinic in Greenwood Village. They have committed to building 25 mental health clinics by 2020 for veterans and their family members. We need to find programs – either private or government run — that are working, learn from them, and build on those successes so that every veteran and Coloradan can get the health services they need.

Veterans Day is a time to support, celebrate, and honor all of our veterans. They put their lives on the line to protect the freedoms we enjoy every day and we owe it to them to ensure that they can get the mental health care they so desperately need.

Leroy Garcia is Colorado’s Senate president elect. He represents Senate District 3 in Pueblo and Pueblo West.

Originally appeared in the Denver Post.