Bracing against a growing surge of veterans needing psychological care spawned by a decade of war in southwest Asia, the Department of Veterans Affairs announced Thursday it will boost its mental health staff by nearly 10 percent.
The agency will add 1,600 mental health practitioners and 300 support personnel to its existing workforce of 20,590, according to Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric K. Shinseki.
It's not yet known how the increase nationwide will impact staffing on Long Island. The VA Medical Center at Northport is currently funded for 184 full-time mental health positions, including psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, nurses and therapists.
"History shows that the costs of war will continue to grow for a decade or more after the operational missions in Iraq and Afghanistan have ended," Shinseki said in a statement. "As more veterans return home, we must ensure that all veterans have access to quality mental health care."
Veterans advocates cite several recent cases -- including the killing of 17 Afghan civilians, allegedly by an Army staff sergeant in March, and the Nassau County jail suicide of Marine Sgt. Bart Ryan in February -- as indications that the wars are stressing troops to the breaking point.
Military leaders and veterans advocates warn that untreated war stress is contributing to high rates of joblessness, family problems, and unchecked rage and depression among current and former troops.
After a soldier shot up an apartment complex near Fort Bragg, N.C., in January, Lt. Gen. Frank Helmick said there had been six suicides by Fort Bragg soldiers in the prior six weeks and at least 25 cases of spousal abuse at the post in the previous month.
The Northport facility has experienced a 30 percent increase in its mental health patient load since the Afghanistan War started in 2001. It has seen a nearly 14 percent increase in such patients in the past four years alone.
In addition to providing emergency-room psychological care, the facility usually is able to offer psychological or substance-abuse appointments for veterans "within 14 days of a desired date," a Northport spokesman said.