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Politics / Issues
Get the latest coverage of the 2021 Florida legislative session in Tallahassee from our coverage partners and WUSF.

Bill Would Give Easier Access To Mental Health Services For Veterans

The bill's sponsor says transitioning from active duty to civilian life is hard and at times veterans turn to self-medication through drugs or alcohol as a way to cope.

A bill to help veterans address their mental health needs has just one hurdle left to clear in both chambers before reaching a floor discussion. The measure would create a one-stop number where veterans can get everything from peer-to-peer support to service referrals.

For veterans, mental health struggles aren’t unusual. Officials say between 12 and 20 percent of the veterans who served in Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom have been diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

“We have over 1.5 million veterans in the state of Florida, and one of the major problems that veterans have when they come back from their service to our country, in very difficult situations, many of them face mental health and substance abuse problems,” says Sen. Gayle Harrell (R-Stuart). “And its very difficult to integrate back into their communities.”

Harell says transitioning from active duty to civilian life is hard and at times veterans turn to self-medication through drugs or alcohol as a way to cope. A report from Senate Staff says more than 20 percent of veterans diagnosed with PTSD also have a substance abuse disorder. And Harell says concerns surrounding COVID-19 have exacerbated those problems by adding stressors and making it harder to get help.

“Not only do they have the challenges from PTSD frequently, reintegrating back into our communities, but today, with COVID, the isolation that people feel and the added difficulties makes it even more difficult for them,” Harrell says.

Harrell wants to make getting help as simple as picking up the phone. She’s sponsoring a bill that extends a program statewide to let veterans dial a dedicated line staffed by their peers who are trained to provide support and links to services. Harrell says it’s a proven program.

“It increases the number of veterans who use community-based services, so it puts them in contact with those community based services. And it also, importantly, links them with VA services that we already pay for through out federal taxes. It helps them get in the situation. And these referral services provide something that is absolutely key—and that’s peer-to-peer support for crisis intervention as well as for referral,” Harrell says.

Harrell’s plan would expand a pilot program that’s been in place at the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay since about 2014. It piggy backs on the 2-1-1 program that’s already in place across the state. It provides support and links to services for anyone who is struggling.

Sen. Tom Wright (R-Port Orange) says he’s glad to see the veteran portion of that go state-wide as well.

“The more that I’m involved in legislation, the more that I realize we have a lot of great programs for veterans, but we aren’t very good at letting them know what they are. And if we can just get them understand 2-1-1,” Wright says.
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