Many service members may be reluctant to seek Veteran’s disability benefits treatment for mental health issues. This may be because they worry it will affect their ability to advance in the military; it can also be due to the VA’s history of not recognizing mental health conditions, and/or underrating the disability they can cause.
One study found that as many as one in five veterans returning from service in Iraq or Afghanistan reported having symptoms of PTSD or major depression — yet only about half seek treatment. But left untreated, mental health problems can eventually disrupt a vet’s life, leading to alcohol and drug abuse problems, difficulty holding down a job and causing trouble in relationships.
Number receiving disability benefits for mental disorders increasing
Veteran’s disability benefits for eligible mental health conditions are worth pursuing. If the condition is found to be service-connected, you are entitled to receive free medical attention for the problem and monthly payments, depending on the severity.
For veterans who began receiving disability payments in 2011, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) was the third most common disability — behind tinnitus and hearing loss. Disability claims for mental disorders are increasing as a percentage of all claims, with the number first receiving benefits for mental conditions up 7% from 2010 to 2011. In 2011, a total of 878,000 vets were receiving disability compensation for mental disorders.
There has been an increase in PTSD claims, in part because the VA changed its evidence requirements. The VA used to require specific evidence showing exactly which events in military service caused the PTSD, but has since relaxed that requirement.
Is the stigma lessening?
Our culture still carries a stigma about mental health problems, and this may be especially true in an occupation like the military where service members are supposed to be tough and strong.
But the recent media attention to PTSD and other conditions leading to veterans committing suicide seem to have made the topic seem too important not to talk about anymore. An Australian general just published a memoir detailing his decades-long struggle with the mental and emotional problems caused by PTSD.
In his book, “Exit Wounds: One Australian’s War on Terror,” Major General John Cantwell details the emotional scars of war. He says he tried to hide PTSD for decades because he thought it would affect his career. His tours included Operation Desert Storm in the 1990s and Iraq in the 2000s. He writes, “My hope is that the story of my twenty year struggle with PTSD may encourage other veterans to acknowledge their problems and seek help.”
However improved our attitudes about PTSD might be, they might not extend to other mental health issues such as depression. The National Alliance on Mental Illness issued a “Depression and Veterans Fact Sheet” noting that depression is still less acceptable than PTSD, causing many veterans not to seek treatment.
Claiming disability benefits
If the stigma against emotional problems is lessening for our veterans, when they do seek help, the VA has not always been there. Many experts agree that in the face of much criticism, the VA has in recent years made sincere efforts to improve its ability to diagnose and process mental health claims. Unfortunately, though, the huge numbers of new claims for all disabilities are swamping all efforts to get veterans timely treatment.
The key often comes down to finding the right evidence. Once you move past the challenge of showing that the condition is service connected – you then have the challenge of getting an accurate rating on your disability level. Some believe that the VA tries to reduce its backlog and move cases along by acknowledging the mental health condition, but giving it a low disability rating.
It’s also often thought that the one hour exam by a VA doctor is not adequate to fully evaluate a condition’s effects. In many cases, the veteran will need to do some homework on finding the right medical opinions to document the condition. In these cases, seeking the advice of an experienced lawyer can help you build your case.
For some mental health conditions, such as psychiatric disabilities, it can be a matter of having the right doctor evaluate and explain the diagnosis. Certain conditions can be mistakenly diagnosed as personality disorder, which is not a recognized disability.
Additional, non-medical evidence can be useful to show how the condition impairs daily functioning. Statements from friends and family close to the veterans with examples and observations of problems can help. In some cases, employment records can be used to show diminished output, fewer hours, or other negative effects. This works somewhat like a personal injury claim – to receive compensation, you have to document how the injury has affected your life. It also helps to keep a daily log of how the condition impacts your day.
The stress of finding evidence to receive veteran’s disability benefits can be a lot to handle for someone already suffering mentally from their military service. Be sure you get good advice and help. Veteran’s Service Organizations offer free help to veterans in the claim process. If your initial claim is denied, it’s a good time to get legal advice for an appeal. Most attorneys accredited with the VA will offer you a free consultation to discuss your case. If you decide to hire an attorney, most work on a contingency basis – which means you don’t have to pay them unless you win your case.