RGK Center Student Research Sheds Light on Veterans’ Mental Health

Sara R. Lentz | Originally posted on UT NewsInfographic: Shedding Light on Veterans' Mental Health

November 10, 2015 - Texas is home to 1.7 million veterans — they make up 8.6 percent of the state’s adult population — and many have mental health needs that are going untreated.

The challenge isn’t limited to Texas. Since 2006, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has seen a 63 percent increase in veterans seeking mental healthcare nationwide. A quarter of all post-9/11 veterans seen by the VA requires some type of mental health treatment.

To learn more about how Texas can support veterans’ mental health, a team of six graduate students from the RGK Center in the LBJ School of Public Affairs began a yearlong policy research project in 2013. Led by Professor David J. Eaton, the project looked at the full range of services available at the federal, state, local and nonprofit levels.

“The biggest struggle we identified for veterans was the lack of awareness of, and willingness to seek, mental health services,” says Alexander Leist, a public affairs graduate student who worked on the report.

Ultimately, the report — commissioned by the Meadows Foundation and supported by the Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute (MMHPI) — informed new legislation that dedicates $20 million to improve veterans’ mental health services in Texas.

“This legislation [Senate Bill 55] will allow the state to partner with communities and the private sector to help veterans recover from the psychological wounds of wars in their own communities and with programs tailored specifically to their needs,” says the bill’s sponsor Texas Senator Jane Nelson.

“Many veterans with mental health issues are simply unaware that their problems can be treated, and others are not able or willing to travel great distances (in Texas especially) or take time off from work in order to seek treatment,” Leist explains.

The bill is designed to address this concern by establishing a grant program to distribute the funding to community programs, thereby decreasing geographic barriers for veterans and increasing the visibility of local services across the state.

Professor Eaton and the students believe working closely with veterans has highlighted the bipartisan and humanitarian side to this political issue.

“In principle, many U.S. citizens support the troops,” says Eaton “However, this report and the Legislature’s funds for improving veterans’ services emphasize in a practical and tangible form the importance of reintegrating returning veterans into life in Texas. It is a priority in which Texas and Texans should invest.”

MMHPI was recently named administer of the Texas Veterans + Family Alliance pilot program. They are working closely with the Health and Human Services Commission to bring communities together to identify and fill the unmet mental health needs of Texas veterans and military families.

The success of the report is a win-win, says Professor Eaton. “It shows how the university is a force for improving the world in which we live.”

Eaton’s goal during his 41 years of teaching has been to enable students to work on research that makes a difference. “I experience those ‘impactful outcomes’ multiple times every semester, without fail,” he says, “although the results may not always be a $20 million program.”

“There is no greater pleasure as a professor than to see your students finish a project that transforms them as individuals,” he says. “It is important that their research is making an impact, but getting the opportunity to work with veterans hands on has changed them as well.”