In 2021, there are over 150,000 veterans living in Connecticut. Recently, a black veteran from Hamden, Conley Monk Jr., filed a lawsuit against the US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), alleging that they denied VA benefits and disability compensation claims to black veterans at a higher rate than white veterans in for decades.
VA data obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests reveal that over two decades through 2020, black veterans were denied disability benefits 39.5 percent of the time, compared to white veterans 24.2 percent of the time. the percentage.
VA benefits include access to health care. VA disability compensation is a “monthly, tax-free payment to veterans who became ill or injured while serving” or whose service aggravated an existing condition. This lawsuit, which alleges racial disparities in access to health care and disability benefits, highlights the critical consequences for black veterans living in Connecticut, and the state must act.
One in four veterans has at least one disability. Rates of major depression in veterans are five times higher than in civilians, and rates of post-traumatic stress disorder are 15 times higher than in civilians. In the general population, major depression remains untreated at higher rates in black and Hispanic communities than in white communities. In addition, the prevalence of PTSD was higher in black, Hispanic, and Native American veterans compared to white veterans.
The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has also had significant health, social and economic impacts that have significantly exacerbated mental health symptoms. The first year of the pandemic caused a 25% increase in the global prevalence of anxiety and depression. Studies show that people with a pre-existing mental illness have increased psychiatric, anxiety and depressive symptoms during a pandemic. Veterans are no exception when facing increased mental health symptoms and distress during the pandemic. As evidenced by the 25% rate of veterans who have at least one mental illness, many entered the pandemic with a pre-existing mental health condition, possibly experiencing more severe mental health symptoms.
It is clear that veterans in general, but veterans of color in particular, are experiencing a mental health crisis, especially given the compounding effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. So why are they constantly being denied the OT benefits, access to health care and disability benefits they so desperately need?
In my work with veterans at the Connecticut Veterans Law Center (CVLC) as a discharge upgrade and policy intern, I have seen the need for access to quality mental health services and the profound impact that obtaining such access has on the lives of veterans , especially for black veterans. In 2020, 80% of CVLC clients had at least one disability. The veteran clients I worked for often had co-occurring disabilities, at least one often a form of mental illness. Many also experienced the harmful effects of racism in the military, which exacerbated their mental symptoms.
A recent CVLC report to which I contributed as an intern, entitled Discretionary Injustice, found that:
Black service members “were approximately 1.5 times more likely than white service members to receive an honorable discharge rather than an honorable discharge, and approximately twice as likely as white service members to receive a general discharge.”
These are critical findings, as less-than-dignified dismissals negatively affect access to severance pay. Black veterans are systematically excluded from VA benefits due to “bad paperwork” discharges and cannot get the health care or disability compensation they need.
With the 2023 session of the Connecticut General Assembly convening on January 4, 2023, the Legislature must provide adequate support for veterans, especially black veterans, by ensuring that access to quality health care for veterans is on their priority list.
Connecticut has made great strides in expanding mental health services in the past year. In June, Governor Ned Lamont signed a series of bills to improve mental health services for children. In August, Lamont announced the state would award $5.1 million in state funding for infrastructure improvements to the Connecticut Department of Veterans Affairs’ Rocky Hill campus.
In a press release in November of this year, Governor Lamont said, “We have an obligation to support our veterans,” then announced that the Pearl Harbor Memorial Bridge in New Haven would be lit red, white and blue to honor Veterans Day. Lighting a bridge two days a year and improving the building’s infrastructure is not enough to support veterans.
It is critical that the state provide veterans with the comprehensive, quality mental health care they need. In Connecticut’s virtuous efforts to expand mental health services, veterans, especially black veterans, cannot be overlooked.
Francine Erfe is an MPH student at the Yale School of Public Health.