Survey: Riverside County veterans experiencing high emotional distress; not getting needed care

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Suicidal thoughts run high among veterans living in Riverside County where a recent survey shows the majority are not accessing health care and other benefits to which they are entitled.

“Veterans’ utilization of VA resources was found to be less than optimal with 35 percent, 37 percent and 42 percent never having used their VA health, educational and home mortgage benefits, respectively,” the study found.

Results of the survey, conducted by Riverside-based Community Translational Research Institute, were presented Thursday in Rancho Mirage by CEO C. Anderson Johnson.

The survey was commissioned by the Riverside County Board of Supervisors as a component of the Veterans Improvement Program of Riverside County.

High among the key findings: 1 out of 10 of those surveyed had contemplated suicide shortly before filling out the questionnaire.

“We now have a comprehensive measurement of the overall well-being of the Riverside County veteran population, an assessment that had never been done before and was long-needed,” said Supervisor V. Manuel Perez, who, with Supervisor Chuck Washington, requested the survey.

“The results of this survey will guide us in shaping how we can assist veterans and their families with their needs in health care, education, transportation, benefits assistance, other services and public policies,” Perez said.

From June 1 through Oct. 31, 2018, more than 1,500 veterans responded to the survey, a total that “outperformed veteran surveys done in L.A. and Chicago which have larger populations of veterans,” Perez said.

Of the respondents, 85 percent were men and 15 percent women. They ranged in age from 18 through 98 with the majority – about 18 percent – around 70 years old.

All branches were represented in the findings with the majority – 22.4 percent – having served with the United States Marine Corps. All major ethnic groups also were represented, with the majority – 59.7 percent – white; 20.7 percent Hispanic; 9.8 percent black; 3.6 percent Asian; and 3.1 percent Native American.

Among the key findings:

  • Rates of those who have diabetes, heart disease and high blood pressure “are considerably higher than the general population.”
  • 4 out of 10 reported their health “as no better than poor to fair.”
  • Half to nearly two-thirds appear to suffer “significantly” from emotional distress and 1 out of 10 has considered suicide in the last two weeks.
  • For veterans under age 40, the unemployment rate is 27 percent.

“The prevalence of chronic disease increases with age, as expected, but the prevalence of emotional distress was greatest in those under 40 years of age, with 60 to 80 percent showing signs of high levels of distress on various indicators, and 13 percent indicating that they had been contemplating suicide,” Johnson reported.

Poor access to preventive, health management and social resources contributes to the disproportionate health burden experienced by Riverside County veterans, Johnson concluded.

Seven recommendations were made:

  • Intensify outreach of the riverside County Department of Veterans’ Services to facilitate better utilization of VA and other resources.
  • Screen and channel veterans who are not receiving adequate prevention and healthcare services into the county’s 10 Federally Qualified Health Centers and contracted health centers.
  •  Implement a coordinated veterans population health plan that taps the unique financial resource opportunities of FQHCs, Behavioral Health and the Veterans Administration.
  • Enroll uninsured veterans in an insurance plan.
  • Focus efforts to address the disproportionate chronic disease morbidity of middle age and elderly veterans and future chronic disease morbidity of younger veterans.
  • Focus efforts to address emotional distress and related economic, unemployment and housing issues especially for younger veterans for whom those issues are most profound.
  • Develop an ongoing surveillance plan to a) detect veteran population needs early and navigate individual veterans to appropriate health and social service; and b) gauge progress in addressing the needs of Riverside County veterans over time.

“What surprised me was in the emotional distress trends … it’s the young vet who has no clear sense of purpose in life or feels frequently on the edge,” Johnson said in the presentation.

The survey was done for a variety of reasons, Perez said.

“We need measurements and metrics of how our veterans are faring in many aspects of their lives, compared to the general population,” Perez said.

Veterans need housing, education, transportation and assistance with benefits, he said.

“And we need to assess and quantify those needs to identify gaps in programs and services that we should address,” Perez said.

The research and data will support the county’s ability to attract greater resources and funds, he said.

Perez said he has been working with Assemblyman Eduardo Garcia, D-Coachella, to get the state to fully fund veterans’ services.

During the recession, funding for veterans’ services in California was slashed in half, Perez said, from about $11 million to $12 million to about $5 million or to $6 million.

“We’re asking that we make sure our Legislature recognizes the importance of serving our veterans and we’re asking for full funding,” Perez said.

Veterans may be asked to join in the campaign through phone calls or letters to representatives or trips to Sacramento, he said.

Most of the more than 50 people attending Thursday’s presentation at Rancho Mirage City Hall were veterans, including David Carden Jr. of Palm Springs, who served in Vietnam and is now dealing with PTSD and health issues related to Agent Orange exposure.

“It’s a great first start,” Carden said of the survey. “I think it’s great to have an open dialogue about the state of veterans’ services” and what is needed.

Carden is especially happy to see an emphasis being put on needed mental health care for vets.

In recent months, he said he has seen services expanded at the VA clinic in Palm Desert with the addition of more therapists.

But he wants to see more for Vietnam vets such as himself with health issues due to Agent Orange exposure.

“I think they need to do specific outreach for Vietnam vets,” he said.

Carden is among the more than 40,280 vets who served in the Vietnam War living in Riverside County – 31.1 percent of the county’s more than 129,350 veterans. More than 9,500 were living in the Coachella Valley area as of May, according to statistics from the county Office of Veterans Services.

He was disappointed that the survey did not specifically ask about Agent Orange exposure. During the Vietnam War, the blend of herbicides was sprayed by the U.S. military in the jungles from 1962 to 1971 to remove trees and other foliage the enemy used for cover.

So, he wrote “a long comment” at the end of the survey pointing out the need for direct attention to possible health issues resulting from that exposure and has been assured that will be more directly addressed going down the road.

“I appreciate the fact that somebody is interested in my welfare and my future and how I can collaborate with them to have a more healthy life,” Carden said. “I feel the VA is trying to do better.”

Moving forward, Perez said the county needs to develop a culture where veterans have more points of access in navigating health and social services.

The county needs to look to what Los Angeles County does as a model for “No doors closed” and “do what we can to expand access to veterans in our health care/behavioral health system.”

Desert Sun reporter Sam Metz contributed to this report.

Desert Sun reporter Sherry Barkas  can be reached at sherry.barkas@desertsun.com or (760) 778-4694. Follow her on Twitter @TDSsherry

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