By Sam Judy
Despite taking the same risk of death and costly sacrifice to their mental well-being, Black Veterans continue to suffer as mental health services are statistically less accessible for the demographic than their white counterparts.
Institutional racism continues to persist through channels of assistance for Black Veterans as the Department of Veterans Affairs has acknowledged that discrimination has likely played a major role in major discrepancies in assistance.
“We recognize that in the past there has been institutional discrimination that may have played a role in the adjudication of benefits,” VA press secretary Terrence Hayes told Axios News last month following an announcement that the department has taken on an initiative to address disparities.
Documents released through an open records request filed earlier this year by Black Veterans Project in Baltimore show proof of racial discrimination in the accessibility of mental health/disability benefits offered to Veterans.
Data retrieved from the fiscal year of 2023 showed that 15.52% of all Black Veterans who applied for physical or mental health benefits were denied assistance by the VA, compared to 10.6% of white Veterans. This is consistent with reports from 2017, showing that Black Veterans seeking disability benefits for PTSD were denied 57% of the time, compared to a 43% rate of denial for white counterparts.
rom 2017 to 2023, white Veterans enjoyed a consistently higher grant rate than Black Veterans every year. Despite seeking and applying for services at a higher rate (43% compared to 31.7% for white Veterans), Black Veterans have received significantly less assistance than whites.
Even among those receiving services, Black Veterans often have worse outcomes, according to a study featured in Psychiatric Services, Volume 73 in 2022.
Of the 2,870 Veterans treated nationally in VA Posttraumatic Stress Disorder Residential Rehabilitation Treatment Programs in fiscal year 2017, Black Veterans receiving services from the VA experienced a higher rate of depression symptom recurrence 4 months after discharge compared to white Veterans. While services were proven to improve conditions across demographics, Black Veterans still experienced markedly poorer outcomes.
The effects of these institutional failures are apparent and run deep, as they contribute to the framework of larger social issues with devastating repercussions. According to a study by the National Center on Homelessness Among Veterans, Black Veterans are substantially prevalent in the homeless population compared to other Veterans, comprising 39% of the total homeless veteran population despite making up only 11% of the total veteran population.
Outcomes in PTSD and depression are typically worse, and likewise, Black Veterans are more likely to fall into alcoholism even with similar levels of consumption to their white counterparts, according to the American Journal of Psychiatry.
Additionally, a study conducted by the nonprofit research group Rand Corp. showed there were 1.76 suicide attempts among Black troops for each by a white service member. As services falter, so does the quality of life for Black Veterans compared to white former service members, resulting in higher documented rates of homelessness, alcohol use disorder, and suicide.
Texas is home to over 1.6 million Veterans, with one-fourth of all Veterans statewide residing in the DFW area. Dallas previously made the news in 2016 when on July 7, Black veteran Micah Xavier Johnson killed five officers and wounded seven others before being slain in a stand-off with police Downtown.
Reflecting disillusionment, pain, and a documented resentment of a deeply flawed system exacerbated by increasing violence against Black Americans by law enforcement, the incident illustrated the result of the systemic failures of the Department of Veterans Affairs as much as it did the institutional racism present throughout American life.
As an Army Reserve Afghan War veteran, Johnson showed warning signs of potential violence prior to the calculated attack on white law enforcement. He was previously recommended for mental health counseling by a fellow soldier who accused him of sexual harassment. Stating that they were platonic friends of over four years, she recalled an event when Johnson punched out a car window during an outburst, severing an artery and requiring medical treatment.
Following an inspection, Johnson was deemed a threat to others and disarmed by his commanding officer. After a period of high stress and ostracization, Johnson was mistakenly honorably discharged according to the Army and never was provided counseling. This and other details were released following his death.
Other Veterans, such as Paul, 72, a former Army sergeant living in South Dallas that served in the Vietnam War, have suffered lifelong cases of PTSD while continuing to work and seek out services from the VA.
“I still have nightmares from what we did,” Paul says, explaining that insomnia brought on by PTSD has left him sleepless most nights.
“When I go in to get help, I have to stand in line behind a hundred other people. They expect you to smile and be polite. I fought for this country. I bled for this country,” Paul says. “All of my guys came back. Nobody was dead, nobody with one leg or one arm, everybody came back. And all they did was whatever I told them to.”
Suffering night terrors, high anxiety, and depression, Paul recently secured compensation for false denials of repeated disability claims. “I sued their asses and won,“ Paul says. “And the money’s great, but look at how long it took. Forty years for me to get what I should’ve already got. I’m over 70 years old. They already robbed me.”
Almost 80 years after the GI Bill was rendered largely inaccessible for Black Veterans, the group continues to suffer due to institutional patterns of discrimination. As the demographic receives lesser treatment than white former service members, the figurative cracks in our society turn to fissures as they become more firmly integrated within our institutions. Despite the VA’s promise to right institutional wrongs, lasting effects have left the lives of Black Veterans at greater risk of debasement through several factors.