By Lawrence Messina
One in five West Virginia veterans are at risk for suicide while half show signs of post-traumatic stress disorder, depression or both, researchers told lawmakers on Tuesday.
The figures come from a recent survey of more than 1,200 state veterans, which also found higher than normal rates for obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure, West Virginia University psychology professor Joseph Scotti said. The study was commissioned by the Legislature.
The findings prompted Scotti and the survey team to recommend a comprehensive plan to provide needed mental health services to veterans. Such a plan should include a public service campaign to alert veterans to available resources, educating health care providers and working more closely with U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs facilities in the state, Scotti told the House-Senate Select Committee on Veterans’ Affairs.
“The VA can’t do it alone,” Scotti said.
Close to 170,000 West Virginians are veterans, more than one in 10 adults, according to the latest estimate from the U.S. Census Bureau. Just 11 states have a larger segment of veterans among their residents. More than two-thirds of West Virginia’s veterans are 55 or older, while around 7 percent have served since the Sept. 11 attacks, according to the estimate.
Conducted last year, the survey asked veterans about such topics as health, work, education and family. Scotti and fellow WVU professor Roy Tunick, who teaches rehabilitation counseling and counseling psychology, helped design the survey and analyze the results. Atlas Research, a service-disabled veteran owned small business, managed the project.
Scotti told lawmakers Tuesday that the findings he presented during their hour-long meeting represent just some of the data the survey yielded. A roughly equal portion of veterans across five age groups designated by the survey responded, he noted.
As expected, researchers linked the prevalence of PTSD and depression to having served in conflict areas and enduring the stress of combat.
“A significant number of these veterans are experiencing one or the other or both, with both being quite debilitating,” Scotti said.
Just over half of the veterans self-reported recent episodes of poor mental health. Other troubling findings include one in 10 veterans reporting being homeless during the past year. Female veterans, who accounted for 15 percent of those surveyed, were disproportionately represented, Scotti said.
But the survey also found rates of alcohol consumption or non-prescribed drug use lower than the state average and on par with national rates. Most are married and have at least one child.
“So, we’re talking about veterans who are involved with families, where whatever their situation is impacts themselves, their spouses and any children,” Scotti told lawmakers.
Veterans were middle-of-the-road when asked to measure their quality of life. While older veterans tended to assign higher ratings than younger ones, Scotti said that does not necessarily mean that conditions improve for veterans as they age. Those surveyed reported rarely or infrequently losing their tempers, and rarely becoming violent, Scotti said.