By Erin Delmore
“It didn’t start yesterday, but our understanding of it is something that is starting to change,” said Congressman Donald Norcross.
Norcross is looking to bridge the gap between mental health services for veterans and the care provided to them by the Department of Veterans Affairs.
“Veterans make up only 12 percent of the population, but they account for 23 percent of the suicides. Veterans over 50 — that’s 67 percent of those — are the ones who are taking their own lives. And when we talk about women in the military, a woman under the age of 30 is 12 times more likely to take her life than the general population. Twelve times,” Norcross said.
Norcross joined with South Jersey veterans and support organizations to announce his plan to provide immediate mental health care for all U.S. veterans seeking emergency help.
“Any veteran who calls the VA in a crisis will have a bed. If the Veterans Administration does not have one in their own facility, they will have a list of providers. Not a hand-off; a delivery for services they need,” Norcross said.
“If someone has to call, if they take that choice, if they make that choice to call and ask for help, and they get declined by a VA office or declined by a hospital because there’s no beds, statistically they’re less likely to make a second call if they get referred to someone else. And what the plan here is doing is trying to keep them on the line while the bed is found for them,” said retired Marine John Rapacz.
Rapacz was diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury upon his return from his second deployment with the Marine Corps.
“I took a hard IED hit while we were clearing the route in Iraq and I took shrapnel wounds to the legs and a few to the face… You kind of have to re-learn the way you think and stuff. You’re a bit foggy sometimes, a bit slower. I actually have a condition called photophobia now as well. Now, bright lights will give me migraines sometimes,” he said.
Rapacz is studying neurobiology at Rutgers-Camden, a “Purple Heart University” attended by nearly 450 vets. It’s where Congressman Norcross chose to announce his plan and to meet with South Jersey veterans for a roundtable discussion.
“Some of our veterans shared with us that they knew there was an issue, but they had a family to raise. They couldn’t afford to take care of themselves,” Norcross said. “And I asked, if you were diagnosed with cancer, would you not seek help?”
Some say depression, traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder — the most common forms of mental illness, according to the VA — are reaching epidemic proportions among service members. Around 22 veterans a day commit suicide in the U.S.
As more and more veterans return home from overseas deployments, representatives at the Rutgers forum said more needs to be done, not only to make sure the U.S. can keep up with existing demand for health care services, but to brace for the years ahead.