Mental health aid cut by State Dept. amid Afghan withdrawal

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Mental health aid cut by State Dept. amid Afghan withdrawal

In the final days of the botched US withdrawal from Afghanistan, State Department officials rejected the Department of Veterans Affairs’ offer of mental health services to those working around the clock to get Americans and their Afghan allies to safety, a new report claims.

According to Politico, a top VA official suggested the offer Aug. 26 after hearing that “a number” of State Department staffers were “experiencing much distress” after taking calls from people trying to escape Afghanistan before the looming deadline to remove US forces.

In an email to colleagues, VA acting Undersecretary of Health Steven Lieberman reportedly wrote that he suspected the State Department did not have “an effective process in place to deal with this type of distress.” 

“We could have some of our Vet Center staff provide support virtually if the State Dept were interested,” Lieberman wrote.

According to Politico, the VA offered to make available its 24-7 support hotline that focuses on PTSD and suicide prevention, as well as provide in-person support for State Department personnel in countries temporarily housing evacuated Afghans bound for America.

State Department officials ultimately decided against accepting the offer, angering some employees. 

Workers with the State Department guide refugees to board a bus.
“A number” of State Department staffers were “experiencing much distress” after taking calls from people trying to escape Afghanistan.
Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

Diplomatic staffers have told Politico that they continue to suffer mental and emotional issues since the end of the withdrawal, fueled by ongoing requests for help accompanied by photos of Afghan children or victims of reprisals at the hands of the Taliban.

“My colleagues need help. And I think the resources need to be provided. It’s really disturbing to me that there was an opportunity for us to have help, given to us by the Department of Veterans Affairs that was rejected,” one employee said. “It’s a disgrace, and leadership should be ashamed of themselves.”

“This experience broke a lot of people, including me,” another State Department official said. “We were all getting inundated by personal requests to help specific people from everyone we’ve ever known or worked with. And we were powerless to do anything, really. Feeling like you’re supposed to be the government’s 911, but knowing the call for help didn’t go very far beyond you was extremely demoralizing.”

Afghan evacuees being helped by US officials.
Afghan evacuees being helped by US officials.
Sean Gallup/Getty Images

The State Department has defended their efforts to provide mental health support to their employees, noting the presence of therapy dogs, support group meetings and mental health webinars. The department also said that more than 600 one-on-one counseling sessions with employees involved in Afghanistan-related projects had taken place as of Oct. 19. 

However, Politico’s report added that the Department admitted many staffers could have missed notices regarding mental health support due to the “flood of information staffers had to deal with.” 

One official blasted State Department leadership, saying the trauma and chaos of the withdrawal resulted from “management failure.” 

“I think there was a general consensus that Kabul would fall and it would fall across the backs of the people who were closest to the United States the hardest. And it was inevitably going to lead to panic,” the official said. “I think anyone who works with human rights or women’s rights or democracy or had spent time in Kabul, our embassy or in our mission staff would have been able to say that. So I don’t think it was an intelligence failure. I think it was a management failure.”

The Department did not immediately respond to The Post’s request for comment.

The Pentagon is still working to evacuate of Americans and Afghan allies from the Taliban-run country. 

Earlier this month, NBC News reported that Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Colin Kahl requested US military personnel and civilians working for the Pentagon to email his office with the names of immediate family members who need help leaving Afghanistan.

Afghans gather outside the passport office.
The Pentagon is still working to evacuate Americans and Afghan allies from Afghanistan.
STRINGER/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

While several dozen immediate family members of US service personnel remain in Afghanistan, more than 100 extended family members are also stuck, according to NBC. It is unclear how many are looking to leave. 

Last month, the State Department claimed that 178 of the 368 Americans remaining in Afghanistan wanted to leave. That number was substantially higher than the approximately 100 Americans the Biden administration previously said were left in the war-torn country.

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