Overcoming Stigma: How Veterans with Mental Health | South Portland, ME

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Overcoming Stigma: How Veterans with Mental Health Conditions Can Claim VA Benefits

Atty. Francis Jackson: [00:00:00] But can you tell us, what are some of the primary psychiatric conditions that veterans often seek disability benefits for and how does the VA go about evaluating them?

Atty. Cliff McCarthy: So, the most ubiquitous claim would probably be, quote, PTSD. And then depression and anxiety. Now, PTSD is the one that’s the most difficult. Because for PTSD, for all claims, you have to show a diagnosis, of course. Something happened in service, and then some medical connection between those two things.

PTSD is unique, though, because for PTSD, in order to show the second element. The in service event, you have to corroborate that with actual records. Now, I just mentioned a minute ago the combat or MST exceptions. If you don’t fall into those categories, you have to corroborate that incident occurred in service with actual records.

Atty. Francis Jackson: [00:01:00] So, welcome to Victory over VA, your guide to understanding your VA disability benefits. If you’re a veteran applying for disability benefits, this is the podcast for you. We talk every week about the latest developments in VA disability and how your approach to obtaining disability benefits should be pursued in a, each particular area.

So, today, welcome. I’m Francis Jackson from Jackson MacNichol. This is Cliff [00:02:00] McCarthy from Jackson MacNichol. And what’s this all about? Well, today, we are going to talk about the question of mental health. Why there is this myth out there that I don’t qualify for VA benefits because I only have a psychiatric condition.

And who’s this for? Well, this is for veterans, anyone who served in the United States military. We want to help with your understanding of veterans’ benefits and offer the inside information on your claims. So if you’re a veteran, this is for you. But broader than that, if you are a family member or someone who is a friend of veterans, this is the podcast for you. So, let’s get started. Mr. McCarthy, welcome.

Atty. Cliff McCarthy: Thank you.

Atty. Francis Jackson: Now, you’ve been working at Jackson MacNichol for a number of years.

Atty. Cliff McCarthy: Yes.

Atty. Francis Jackson: And can you give the audience an idea how many VA hearings you’ve done now?

Atty. Cliff McCarthy: I actually [00:03:00] did do an exact count recently, and now it’s well over 200. It was 200 the last time I counted, and now it’s well over 200.

Atty. Francis Jackson: All right. So, we’ve been talking in this series about myths about VA benefits and one of the myths that comes up time and again is this myth that people who don’t have physical injuries, who weren’t shot or injured in combat don’t qualify. So, tell us, is there entitlement to benefits for people with psychiatric conditions?

Atty. Cliff McCarthy: Yes, there is. And some of the difficulties do mimic the difficulties that come about with trying to prove service connection for physical disabilities. Namely, the VA will say, even though I know you currently have a condition, there’s nothing in your service records that tells me what you say happened.

And you didn’t get treatment the day you were discharged. You didn’t get treatment until 10 years afterwards. So, [00:04:00] I don’t see any connection between your current disability and your service. That’s the general approach the VA takes, initially.

Atty. Francis Jackson: So, in your experience, how has the understanding and acknowledgement of psychiatric conditions in the context of VA disability, evolved over the last few years?

Atty. Cliff McCarthy: Well, over the past, I guess it was now 13 years, the secretary, the VA has promulgated new regulations formally softening the requirements the veteran has to show in order to corroborate that in service event I just talked about. So now, for example, if you were in combat and you say the event that occurred to you is consistent with the nature of combat then it’s a little easier to demonstrate that event actually happened.

Atty. Francis Jackson: And has there been any evolution or change in the way the VA looks at mental health conditions that are related to personal assault?

Atty. Cliff McCarthy: Yes, [00:05:00] that’s another one of the softening regulations that I mentioned. So, if the event you say happened in service, was sexual in nature, a military sexual trauma, MST is what the.

Atty. Francis Jackson: The acronym?

Atty. Cliff McCarthy: Is the acronym people use. If you’re alleging that you were the victim of an MST, then, just like if you were in combat, the rules for proving that event occurred are softened. So, instead of requiring the veteran to corroborate the event by using strict service record, personnel record documents. The VA can look to more general markers like a police report or disciplinary actions that followed the alleged MST.

Because if you had disciplinary devolution, that tends to demonstrate that something happened to you at the point where you said the MST occurred.

Atty. Francis Jackson: What about just your performance declined? Do they consider things like that?

Atty. Cliff McCarthy: Yeah, that would go into the general investigation into markers. So, [00:06:00] if you started to go AWOL after MST, that’s a hallmark marker that something happened to you.

If you suddenly stopped making rank after the date that you said the MST occurred, that would be a clear marker. Now it’s things like that the VA would look for if you’re alleging that you’re the victim of an MST, a military sexual trauma.

Atty. Francis Jackson: And I understand that the court that deals with these cases, the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims, has also issued at least one decision that makes it easier for veterans to apply. Is that correct?

Atty. Cliff McCarthy: I’m not sure what you mean.

Atty. Francis Jackson: I think it’s called Clemens?

Atty. Cliff McCarthy: Oh sure, sure. So, another way that the rules have softened a little bit regarding psychiatric claims. I just mentioned, if your service met certain criteria and you allege certain things, then it’s easier to prove that the event happened in service.

Additionally, the court has explained, if you’re claiming service connection for a psychiatric condition. Whatever psychiatric condition [00:07:00] you’re actually diagnosed with is the one the VA is going to consider. So a lot of people just say the word PTSD because that’s the word people know about. But usually you also have a diagnosis of depression, anxiety drug and alcohol abuse and so on.

If you’re claiming a psychiatric condition, the VA has to consider all your psychiatric conditions.

Atty. Francis Jackson: And I understand that’s different than what they used to do. I, my understanding is that it used to be that if you went to the VA and you said you have PTSD. And they sent you out for an exam, and it came back that you don’t have PTSD, but you have depression. They would just deny your claim.

Atty. Cliff McCarthy: That’s right. It was very in my opinion, unfair, because the whole point of the system is that veterans are not medical professionals. I don’t know if I have depression, or PTSD, or anxiety. I don’t even know what the bills are called, really. So I just said, I need psychiatric help.

And the VA was kind of making strict pleading requirements in the veterans, which I’m glad is not the [00:08:00] case anymore.

Atty. Francis Jackson: Well, that’s good to hear. But can you tell us, what are some of the primary psychiatric conditions that veterans often seek disability benefits for and how does the VA go about evaluating them?

Atty. Cliff McCarthy: So, the most ubiquitous claim would probably be, quote, PTSD. And then depression and anxiety. Now, PTSD is the one that’s the most difficult. Because for PTSD, for all claims, you have to show a diagnosis, of course. Something happened in service, and then some medical connection between those two things.

PTSD is unique, though, because for PTSD, in order to show the second element. The in service event, you have to corroborate that with actual records. Now, I just mentioned a minute ago the combat or MST exceptions. If you don’t fall into those categories, you have to corroborate that incident occurred in service with actual records.

Which, as we all know, military records [00:09:00] are, I mean, almost universally incomplete or in fact misleading because people don’t say certain things would get recorded, so on and so forth. So If you’re claiming MST, that’s going to be the most difficult because any other psychiatric condition, you don’t have to strictly corroborate the in service event to the same level of scrutiny as you do for PTSD.

Atty. Francis Jackson: Now, you mentioned PTSD and depression and anxiety, and I’m sure those are all very common. What about things like bipolar disorder or schizophrenia? Can you get VA benefits to those things?

Atty. Cliff McCarthy: Yes. There’s many psychiatric conditions that the VA directly contemplates as being compensable. There’s certain ones that are not for example, a personality disorder a disorder that you were born with, but yes, any other psychiatric condition can be compensable and service connected.

Atty. Francis Jackson: What about physical things that cause difficulty with mental functioning like an injury to the brain, for example. Is that convincing?

Atty. Cliff McCarthy: Yeah, you can definitely get service [00:10:00] connection for a traumatic brain injury. And, much more valuable, all the residual effects that come from the brain injury.

Atty. Francis Jackson: Okay. Can you share a case where a veteran successfully secured benefits for a psychiatric condition and highlight how the evidence was presented and the challenges that a veteran like that faces?

Atty. Cliff McCarthy: December of 2022, recently from the day we’re recording this, the board granted service connection for a number of psychiatric conditions. It was characterized as depression and anxiety. And the situation was this. In service, this veteran was assaulted while he was on active duty. As he explains it was a horrible assault. It really affected him. He was a young man. You know, you can imagine how terrible it was. As a result, he kind of shut down.

He started to self medicate, drinking and drugging and so on. And it wasn’t until a number of years after service that. [00:11:00] You know, leading this really diminished life, after a while, he started to hear about VA benefits, and maybe there was some possibility of help. This is a very common story. So many years after service, he finally started to look into it.

He started to go to the VA. He started to see a therapist. And then he finally filed a claim for what he now knows is his depression and anxiety, which he thinks started back in active duty when he was assaulted. The VA initially denied service connection for really all the reasons we’re talking about.

The VA said, although we know you have depression and anxiety, there’s nothing in your service records that even indicates that you were assaulted, and you don’t even get treatment until a number of years after service. From just the four corners of your records, there’s no indication that this stuff was due to service.

So what we did for him, and he came to us to go, to take on the appeal. We took on the appeal. We appealed to the Board of Veterans Appeals. At the Board, [00:12:00] we did this. We arranged for a clinical psychologist to say a couple things that filled in the holes. The psychologist explained that it’s totally consistent with clinical principles that a person who is the victim of a traumatic event would conceal symptoms, and what that means is he would avoid treatment for years.

And what would happen is, when the treatment did begin at some point in the future, it would immediately include evidence of a traumatic event. Which is exactly what happened here. In other words, the psychologist explained that this veteran is credible in everything he said precisely because the records don’t include continuous treatment. And the board understood that and was able to advance service connection.

Atty. Francis Jackson: And you mentioned arranging for a psychologist to say that. That was based on having arranged for the psychologist to examine and evaluate this gentleman, correct?

Atty. Cliff McCarthy: Yes yeah, of course. We got all of his service and medical records and lay statements to the clinical psychologist. [00:13:00] And he was able to opine that there was, in fact, a connection between his current depression, anxiety, and his military service, the assault.

Atty. Francis Jackson: And can you just kind of give us an idea what sort of advice you would give to veterans who might be hesitant to file a claim because of the possibility of stigma around a psychiatric condition?

Atty. Cliff McCarthy: Yeah, it is difficult. I always say, Congress passed these laws that created the opportunity for compensation. Congress doesn’t do things because they’re nice or they care. They do it because it’s, they have to. It’s just. And so in this case, if you meet the criteria for service connection, it’s not that you’re winning the lottery.

It’s that you’ve always been entitled to the money the whole time. And so once the VA grants service connection, you will obtain the things you’ve always been entitled to. So I just think it can be difficult with the stigma. Stigma is what it [00:14:00]is, but you’re literally entitled to the money. So that’s the advice I would give. I try to keep that in mind.

Atty. Francis Jackson: And one of the things that we should probably tell our listeners is that, even if there’s no specific event that you can point to in service. As long as the condition existed in service, that person is, potentially entitled to benefit, correct?

Atty. Cliff McCarthy: That’s right. And forensically showing that the condition existed back then in service is also doable, right? Because experts can opine on things and we have relationships with those experts.

Atty. Francis Jackson: And we’ve had some cases where the person actually had a mental health evaluation or even mental health treatment or mental health medication in service. And that led to their ultimate grant. Is that correct?

Atty. Cliff McCarthy: That’s right. Yeah.

Atty. Francis Jackson: And I know, I had a very frustrating case recently where. Well, it wasn’t recently, but the result was recently, finally. The gentleman had been in service for a period of time [00:15:00] and explained when he made his VA claim that while he was in service, he was sent off to the military hospital because he was having mental health problems.

And the VA checked his service records. No sign of any hospitalization. And said they denied his claim. But he kept explaining over and over. Now, I was hospitalized and eventually, we were able to get the morning reports for his unit. And those showed that not only was he not at his unit, but it actually showed where another person in the unit had been assigned to accompany him to the hospital on one particular day.

And so we were able to finally get the get a good result for him. But on a broader scale, one of the problems with these cases is always showing that something happened in service even though it may not show directly in the [00:16:00] immediate service records. Isn’t that correct?

Atty. Cliff McCarthy: Yeah, that’s a big part of it because like you just, like I mentioned, like you just implied, the service records are often incomplete for X number of reasons.

Atty. Francis Jackson: And one of the things that happens is that hospital records in the service are kept separately, correct?

Atty. Cliff McCarthy: That’s right, yeah, they are kept separately.

Atty. Francis Jackson: All right um, so, in looking at kind of psychiatric claims as a whole sounds like one thing that’s important is for veterans who are having difficulties to look into the question of whether the kinds of problems that they’re having actually might be from a psychiatric condition. Is that correct?

Atty. Cliff McCarthy: I’m not sure what you mean.

Atty. Francis Jackson: Sure. You made, you mentioned earlier that, this person that you were talking about Had difficulty, had, I think you used the term, diminished life after service.

Atty. Cliff McCarthy: Yes, it is very important where if you’re [00:17:00] having troubles and you haven’t gone to seek help yet. You should do that because that can form the basis for your VA claim. I understand now. Yeah.

Atty. Francis Jackson: And more than that, it can help you to understand what’s going on in your life. Correct?

Atty. Cliff McCarthy: Yes, yes. Exactly.

Atty. Francis Jackson: So that’s one piece. You need to kind of look into what’s going on. But there’s also this issue of stigma that we’ve talked about and kind of getting past that. And there’s also the whole problem of proving that these events occurred. And all those things can make it difficult for folks with psychiatric claims, correct?

Atty. Cliff McCarthy: It is, it can be very difficult, yes. And even though they’re entitled to the benefits, nothing about it is designed to be easy per se. Which is why it is very valuable to have an expert who knows what the rules are and has relationships with experts. And knows how the system works to help you through it. You know, it’s going to be, it could [00:18:00] be potentially painful internally no matter what, but having an expert guide you through it can take the edge off a little bit.

Atty. Francis Jackson: Well, thank you very much, Cliff. This has been our podcast for today, Victory Over VA, and I’d like to thank you for participating in this episode and invite everyone to tune in next week.

Atty. Cliff McCarthy: Thanks.

In the latest episode of Victory Over VA, Attorneys Francis Jackson and Cliff McCarthy discuss the persistent myth that veterans with psychiatric conditions do not qualify for VA benefits. They debunk this misconception and shed light on the evolving understanding and acknowledgment of mental health conditions in the context of VA disability. 

While it can be challenging to establish a connection between a veteran’s current condition and their service, recent regulatory changes have softened the requirements for veterans with psychiatric conditions to establish entitlement to benefits. Despite the difficulties, seeking help and understanding what’s going on in one’s life can form the basis for a VA claim. Overcoming the stigma surrounding mental health and enlisting the help of experts who understand the rules and the system can make the process less daunting. 

If you are a veteran, family member, or friend of a veteran, this episode is a valuable resource to better understand veterans’ benefits and gain inside information on VA claims. Don’t miss out on this informative discussion and tune in for more valuable insights.

Other subjects we covered on the show

  • The myth is that individuals with psychiatric conditions do not qualify for VA benefits.
  • Difficulties in proving a connection between a psychiatric condition and military service.
  • Evolution of understanding and acknowledgment of mental health conditions in the VA disability context.
  • Softening of requirements for demonstrating in-service events related to psychiatric conditions.
  • Changes in how the VA looks at mental health conditions related to personal assault, particularly military sexual trauma (MST).
  • Importance of seeking help and treatment for mental health issues to support a VA claim.
  • Challenges of fighting stigma and proving the occurrence of events in psychiatric claims.
  • Value of having an expert guide and navigating the VA disability benefits system.

AND MORE TOPICS COVERED IN THE FULL INTERVIEW!!! You can check that out and subscribe to YouTube.

If you want to know more about Attorneys Francis Jackson and Cliff McCarthy, you may reach out to them at:

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