With Veterans Day just a week away, there is good news from Maine’s congressional delegation. They announced that the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has awarded a design for a new Substance Abuse Residential Rehabilitation Treatment Program building at Togus. The project is an investment in the well-being of Maine veterans and in the nation’s oldest operating veterans facility, so we applaud our elected officials for pushing to expediate work despite roadblocks.
Located in Augusta, Togus dates back to 1866. President Abraham Lincoln signed an act creating the National Asylum for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers in 1865, toward the end of the Civil War. The Eastern Branch at Togus was the first home to open. Today, Togus provides inpatient and outpatient care, surgical services as well as long-term care in a 100-bed nursing home. There are roughly 114,000 living veterans in Maine and around half are 65 or older, so the need is great.
Those Maine veterans in need of long-term mental health and addiction treatment currently must find it far from home and face long waits. Wait times average 132 days to get into treatment programs out of state. The new 24-bed facility at Togus, announced in 2020, would treat over 300 of these veterans annually. It stands to cut wait times and keep veterans closer to home and their support systems – a critical piece for many in recovery.
More than one in 10 U.S. veterans are diagnosed with substance use disorder. An estimated one in five lives with a mental health condition. Needs have only been exacerbated by the pandemic, which has threatened both physical and mental well-being.
The VA medical system has reported more than 16,000 COVID-19 deaths. That figure includes only veterans diagnosed at VA hospitals and medical centers, not other health-care facilities. The VA has recorded over 363,000 COVID-19 cases nationally. Fortunately, the availability of vaccines and expanding knowledge of treatment options have slowed the pace of deaths.
But the effect of stress and isolation during the pandemic will have a lingering impact on mental health and substance use. Pre-pandemic, in 2019, the veteran suicide rate was 52 percent higher than that among nonveterans. One study of surveyed data from the 2019-2020 National Health and Resilience in Veterans Study found the rate of generalized anxiety disorder increased during the pandemic. Meeting existing and emerging needs among the veteran population is vital.
They say you can judge a person by how they behave when there is nothing to gain and when no one is watching. You can judge a nation by how it treats those people who would die for it after they come home and no longer wear the uniform. When complete, Togus’s new residential treatment program will be a step toward honoring a debt that can never fully be repaid.