In 2021, there were over 150,000 veterans living in Connecticut. Recently, a Black veteran from Hamden, Conley Monk Jr., filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), alleging that they have denied VA benefits and disability compensation claims for Black veterans at a higher rate than white veterans for decades.
VA data obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests revealed that for two decades up to 2020, Black veterans were denied disability compensation 39.5 percent of the time compared to white veterans at 24.2 percent.
VA benefits include access to healthcare. VA disability compensation is a “monthly, tax-free payment to veterans who got sick or injured while serving” or whose service aggravated an existing condition. This lawsuit alleging racial disparities in access to healthcare and disability compensation highlights critical implications for Black veterans living in Connecticut, and the state needs to take action.
One in four veterans has at least one disability. Rates of major depression in veterans are five times as high compared to civilians, and post-traumatic stress disorder rates are 15 times as high as civilians. In the general population, major depression goes untreated at higher rates in Black and Hispanic communities compared to white communities. In addition, PTSD prevalence is higher in Black, Hispanic, and Native American veterans compared to white veterans.
The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has also made significant health, social, and economic impacts, which have widely amplified mental health symptoms. The first year of the pandemic triggered a 25% increase in the global prevalence of anxiety and depression. Studies showed that people with 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 having at least one mental illness, many came into the pandemic with a pre-existing mental health condition, conceivably experiencing more severe mental health symptoms.
It is clear that veterans overall but notably, veterans of color, are experiencing a mental health crisis, especially given the compounding effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. So why are they consistently denied the VA benefits, access to healthcare, and disability compensation that they desperately need?
In working with veterans at the Connecticut Veterans Legal Center (CVLC) as discharge upgrades and policy intern, I saw the necessity of access to quality mental health services and the profound impact that gaining such access has on veterans’ lives, particularly for Black veterans. In 2020, 80% of CVLC clients had at least one disability. The veteran clients I worked for often had comorbid disabilities, at least one often a form of mental illness. Many had also experienced the harmful effects of racism in the military that exacerbated their mental health symptoms.
A recent report by the CVLC, that I contributed to as an intern, entitled “Discretionary Injustice” found that:
Black servicemembers “were approximately 1.5 as likely as white servicemembers to receive an Other Than Honorable rather than Honorable discharge, and approximately twice as likely as white servicemembers to receive a General discharge.”
These are critical findings, as less than honorable discharges negatively impact access to VA benefits. Black veterans are systematically excluded from VA benefits because of “bad paper” discharges and cannot obtain the healthcare or disability compensation they need.
Given that the Connecticut General Assembly 2023 session is convening on January 4, 2023, the legislature needs to provide proper support for veterans, particularly Black veterans, by ensuring that access to quality healthcare for veterans is on their list of priorities.
Connecticut has made great strides in expanding mental health services this past year. In June, Gov. Ned Lamont signed a series of bills to improve mental health services for children. In August, Lamont announced the state would release $5.1 million in state funding to improve the infrastructure of the Connecticut Department of Veterans Affairs campus in Rocky Hill.
In a press release in November of this year, Gov. Lamont said, “We have an obligation to support our veterans,” and then subsequently announced that the Pearl Harbor Memorial Bridge in New Haven would be illuminated in red, white, and blue to honor Veterans Day. Lighting up a bridge two days out of the year and improving building infrastructure is not nearly enough to support veterans.
It is critical the state gives veterans the comprehensive, quality mental healthcare they need. In Connecticut’s virtuous efforts to expand mental health services, veterans, especially Black veterans, cannot be left out.
Francine Erfe is a MPH Student at the Yale School of Public Health.