This commentary originally appeared in The Monitor on February 26, 2015.
In his recent State of the State address, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said: “We must do more to help veterans return to civilian life. Not all wounds are seen.” And he is right. With 1.7 million veterans calling Texas home — more than every other state except California — this is the place where bold policies designed to help brave military men and women can be a model for other states.
But the transition from military to civilian life is not easy for many of those who return from duty. Some arrive back home with an increased risk for mental health issues and substance use problems. Abbott’s recent budget proposal aims to help make their lives a little easier by increasing employment opportunities and expanding access to mental health services, which could improve veterans’ mental wellness more than most realize.
Veterans with mental health conditions often struggle to adapt more than other veterans. They often use more substances during their lifetime, have more psychiatric symptoms, spend more time in the criminal justice system, experience more homelessness and commit suicide more often.
Of those veterans who fought in Iraq or Afghanistan, up to 20 percent have been diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) — including about 300,000 veterans in Texas.
Many of those with PTSD end up in the criminal justice system, with 40 percent committing a crime after they return home. Veterans account for about 10 percent of the national prison and jail inmate population — more than 15,000 veterans in Texas alone.
More veterans commit suicide than perish in war. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that 22 veterans commit suicide every day, making it the 4th leading cause of death for Texas veterans behind illness, accidents, and drug-related deaths.
Veterans also comprise a large portion of the nation’s homeless population. According to the most recent report from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, there were 29,615 persons homeless in 2013 and 12 percent were veterans, which is about 3,500 homeless veterans in Texas.
To address the plight of Texas veterans, Abbott has proposed to exempt new businesses that are formed by veterans from paying the state’s business franchise taxes for the first five years. The state also would waive certain licensing exams and fees for veterans who have attained the required education, training and practical experience from their time in the military. Additionally, the governor would like to provide funding for mental health screenings for veterans “to help them deal with some of their (unseen) wounds,” he said.
As Abbott pointed out during his Feb. 17 speech, Texas is the nation’s leader in job creation. But despite Texas creating a record number of jobs in 2014, the veteran unemployment rate rose from 8.3 percent to 8.7 percent. This is much higher than the Texas overall unemployment rate of 4.6 percent.
Having a job does a lot more than reduce unemployment. It may actually do more to improve the mental health of our veterans than mental health screenings. In fact, studies show that having a job is the best way to help prevent those with serious mental illness from hospital admissions. Employment also helps to keep people out of jail. Moreover, joblessness is a top-risk factor for homelessness and suicide.
Nevertheless there is a contradiction in our society, because those with mental health conditions are often encouraged not to work and are told holding a job can be stressful. Although work may be stressful for some people some of the time, being out of work and financially struggling is certainly stressful.
Our soldiers put their lives on the line daily so we can live safe, dignified and gratifying American lives. Texans should return the favor with the reforms outlined by Gov. Abbott. A freer economy with even more job opportunities could help more veterans, and all Texans, stay out of jail, stay in their homes, and stay alive.
Kate E. Murphy is a mental health policy fellow contributing to the centers for Effective Justice and Health Care at the Texas Public Policy Foundation.