A month before he left prison, Jeffrey Murdock, a veteran who suffers from depression and multiple sclerosis, thought his future would entail living as a patient in a state mental hospital. But Murdock’s outlook changed drastically after a Veterans Health Administration social worker met with him while he was still in prison, assessed him and arranged for him to receive an apartment, food, clothing and medical care upon his release. Murdock, 55, is one of 50 incarcerated veterans who have been have been helped since June by the VA jail release program, according to Michele Roberts, the social worker who runs it. Assistance includes housing, medical care, medications, and substance abuse treatment, all of which have helped the veterans avoid situations that put them at risk for re-arrest. Just two are back in jail and a third left the program, Roberts said.
Two programs that connect arrested veterans to treatment – rather than jail – report that many are getting their lives back on track. Some 81 percent of veterans in the program run by the Veterans Health Administration have not been arrested again. And one run by the state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services shows a 36 percent drop in illegal drug use among its veterans and a 44 percent decrease in symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). “So many people are getting what they really need, which is treatment and not incarceration,” said Laurie Harkness, the VA program director. “It’s making such a difference in so many veterans’ lives.”
The programs, designed to help veterans with mental health and substance abuse problems, operate in courts statewide, where social workers reach out to arrested veterans to let them know about treatment options for PTSD, anger management, and addictions, among other illnesses.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs provides inconsistent treatment to veterans with depression and may be underestimating the number of vets who suffer from the condition, according to a government watchdog agency. The VA also needs to do a better job monitoring veterans who are prescribed antidepressants and in tracking suicides, according to a new report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office. The GAO analyzed VA data from the 2009 through 2013 fiscal years and found inconsistencies in the way veterans were treated and medical records were kept. It also found that the VA’s own clinical guidelines were not always followed. VA officials did not respond to requests for comment about the report.