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How the Department of VA Is Failing our Veterans

Life in the military can take its toll on the mental health and well-being of many veterans and active-duty members due to the trauma they may experience on and off duty. The significant challenges they encounter are described as the “invisible wounds of war.”

It’s not surprising that many service members experience mental health issues like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, traumatic brain injuries (TBI) and substance use disorders because of the pressures of war and can have devastating effects if left untreated. While many will seek out help for their issues, some will, unfortunately, fall into the hands of people who will create new scars.

A 2014 study published in JAMA Psychiatry found that the rate of depression among military service members was five times as high as civilians, and the rate of PTSD was nearly 15 times higher. According to another study by Very Well Mind, those with PTSD are five times more likely than those without to develop a major depressive disorder. The RAND Center for Military Health Policy Research estimates that approximately 20% of military members returning from Iraq and Afghanistan reported having had a TBI. With so many veterans dealing with mental and health issues, they look for assistance through the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), which offers many services and programs for Veterans with specific needs, including those suffering from mental health problems.

According to the American Psychological Association, the role of health service psychologists, such as those offered by the VA, is to provide appropriate mental and behavioral health care services, including screening, psychotherapy, counseling, diagnosis, treatment, prevention, remediation, consultation, and supervision. The healthcare professionals should be skilled in collaboration with other health professionals and trained to conduct scientific research, especially practice-based outcomes research and program evaluation. According to the VA website, health service psychologists are to engage in evidence-based practice that is patient-centered, culturally competent, effective, and informed by population-based data across a variety of settings, including primary care, mental health, VA medical centers, community health centers, hospitals, and schools. We trust that these medical professionals are treating those that have fought for our country with dignity and respect, but unfortunately, that is not always the case.

Our firm currently represents three Bay Area military veterans who are struggling with severe mental health issues and are accusing their former Veterans Affairs (VA) psychiatrist of serious ethical and legal lapses. While seeking treatment, they fell into the hands of Dr. Ferda Sakman, whose job is to help the veterans overcome their serious mental health struggles and any trauma they suffered. Two of the plaintiffs had the opportunity to discuss how these events impacted their life with NBC News. “I was desperately seeking help,” said one of the plaintiffs, a former Army medic who suffers from alcoholism and says he often drinks from the time he wakes up until blacking out at night. “Biologically, I’m alive. But I’m not, you understand? It’s like a walking zombie is pretty much the way I can describe it.” But instead of helping them, the psychiatrist subjected them to sexual abuse, the use of potent psychedelic drugs, and astrology to make therapeutic decisions. A former Navy Master-at-Arms, the second plaintiff, described Dr. Sakman’s treatment practices as ‘bizarre.’ “She really pushed her feelings and thoughts onto me to where I learned not to trust myself anymore.” Not only did the doctor let them down, but the entire administration also turned a blind eye to the abuse.

Our clients’ case is not an isolated incident of therapist abuse involving the VA. In 2018, a veteran filed a lawsuit against the Department of Veterans Affairs after he alleged his therapist was allowed to make sexual advances towards him and punished him when he refused to marry her. Last year, Bloomberg Law reported on a former Marine Corps reservist who alleged his therapist at the Baltimore Veterans Affairs Medical Center pressured him into a sexual relationship. While he was able to sue the government for negligent supervision, the Fourth Circuit ruled the U.S. could not be held responsible for the therapist’s actions.

At Winer, Burritt & Scott, LLP we give a voice to people who have been disempowered, and we fight for their rights. Our attorneys aggressively pursue maximum compensation for damages our clients have suffered, and we build cases that are prepared to be successful in both trials and settlement negotiations. Our proven results and strategies strike fear into our opponents, and we capitalize on that fear to achieve the best possible results in our clients’ best interests.

by John Winer






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