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Army seeking better mental health system

U.S. Army Secretary John McHugh talks to reporters Monday at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash. (Associated Press)
U.S. Army Secretary John McHugh talks to reporters Monday at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash. (Associated Press)

Secretary says options can be hard to navigate

JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD, Wash. – Army leadership is looking to improve coordination among its mental health programs and other soldier-resilience efforts, acknowledging Monday that a patchwork system of tools is often confusing for both commanders and soldiers.

Army Secretary John McHugh said he has asked Army officials to finish a plan for an overhaul in the next couple of weeks. He hopes to improve processing times in the disability evaluation system, integrate “resilience” programs into the day-to-day training of soldiers and has the goal of lowering the incidence of suicide, sexual assault and substance abuse among soldiers.

He said there are already a variety of programs available to help soldiers. But he said there is widespread confusion about the available tools, so commanders are unaware of the benefits and programs. That means soldiers aren’t getting matched up with the appropriate opportunities.

“Interventions are not coming as early as we would like to see them,” McHugh said. He also said the Army needs to work on eliminating the stigma associated with seeking help and wants soldiers to be able to encourage each other to seek aid during times of trouble.

McHugh’s effort, which is the product of a yearlong review of the Army’s mental health system, was announced during his visit to Joint Base Lewis-McChord, the home base of Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, who faces 16 counts of premeditated murder after prosecutors say he slipped away from his base in southern Afghanistan to kill civilians in two nearby villages.

While McHugh talked about his goals for remedying troubles in the mental health system, he declined to disclose the results of the yearlong investigation. He said the assessment came up with a variety of findings and recommendations but said he wasn’t ready to discuss the details publicly.

The systemwide review had sought to determine whether psychiatrists overturned diagnoses of post-traumatic stress disorder to save money.

Washington Sen. Patty Murray, who had pressed for the broad review of mental health matters, said she would like to see the Army study expanded to all branches of the military to ensure that personnel aren’t slipping through the cracks.

“We cannot allow those who have served or their loved ones to be dragged through a system that leaves them with more questions than answers,” Murray said in a statement. “We must provide a uniform approach to dealing with the lasting mental wounds of war if we are going to help stem the tide of military suicide and ensure that we are easing the transition home for those who serve.”



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