Friday, August 17, 2012

Veterans in Mental Health Jobs

Military bonds draw veterans to mental health jobs

By Maria LaMagna, Special to CNN
updated 9:18 AM EDT, Thu August 9, 2012
Robert Kyle has tattoos of friends' initials who were killed while deployed. He now works as a peer coach at Vets Prevail.
Robert Kyle has tattoos of friends' initials who were killed while deployed. He now works as a peer coach at Vets Prevail.

    (CNN) -- Things probably should have turned out differently for Samantha Schilling.
    The stories she tells have dark beginnings and could have had, under different circumstances, dark endings -- as so many stories for those in the military do.

    Schilling, now 31, served in the U.S. Navy from 1999 to 2003. She was never deployed but worked as an information systems technician at Naval Station Norfolk in Virginia.

    Several of her colleagues were killed during the 2000 al Qaeda bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen, which left 17 dead and at least 37 injured. Some of the injured were transferred to her base in Norfolk.
    Many of the survivors suffered from mental trauma after the bombing. One of them, a man who had been aboard the ship, attacked Schilling and attempted to rape her.

    That assault drove home the impact that active duty had on her colleagues' mental state.
    "I experienced military sexual trauma, and that just inspired me," she said. "Coming back into civilian life, you're not the same person you were in the military. ... You carry with you all these burdens, all these stressors."

    Schilling was released from service with an honorable medical discharge in 2003. Since that time, she has taken on a personal mission to help others who need counseling after military service. She's nearly completed a masters in a joint military psychology and neuropsychology program at the Adler School of Professional Psychology in Chicago and plans to finish her doctorate degree in 2015.

    Samantha Schilling, with her father, lost several colleagues in the USS Cole bombing.
    Samantha Schilling, with her father, lost several colleagues in the USS Cole bombing.

    "I'm determined to be able to be helpful to others," she said. "Helping others helps me. ... I think therapy can help people adapt to civilian life again instead of maladapt. People who have PTSD and other (issues) can maladapt and cause trouble in the civilian world."

    It's no secret the U.S. military has struggled to adequately support its troops after they leave active duty.
    A large number of service members suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). An estimated 11% to 20% of veterans returning from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars suffer from the condition, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

    That's between 220,000 and 400,000 of the 2 million troops deployed since the September 11 terrorist attacks.

    A new study (PDF) shows that only about half of U.S. service members deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan diagnosed with PTSD received any treatment for it.

    And statistics from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs show that about 18 veterans commit suicide every day.

    But some former active-duty service members aren't waiting for help to arrive.The VA has stepped up efforts to expand care and recently announced plans to hire 1,600 more mental health professionals and 300 support staff members to help meet the increasing demand for services.

    Veterans have turned to psychology to become mental health professionals, and they're filling in gaps in veteran care that government and civilian efforts have left open. And while they are still rare, programs to train them are slowly emerging at universities and nonprofit organizations around the United States.

    "It's just going to increase and increase"

    Born a year ago with funding from the Department of Veteran Services in Massachusetts, a program through the Massachusetts School of Professional Psychology called Train Vets to Treat Vets has recently picked up steam. It has several goals: mentoring new veterans, providing services to at-risk and homeless veterans, and educating the public about ways they can help.

    "As the stigma (of seeking professional mental health treatment) breaks down more and more, and more veterans are willing to come into treatment, (the need) is just going to increase and increase," said Robert Chester, 25, who served in the National Guard for six years and became a student at the Massachusetts School of Professional Psychology.

    "That's why we want to get more veterans into mental health, both to break down the stigma and get more clinicians out there."

    Chester is now an admissions assistant at Train Vets to Treat Vets.

    Starting the program was a joint effort between the Massachusetts Department of Veterans' Services and veterans (Chester and colleagues Greg Matos and Norman Tippens) who are also students at at the school.
    "We, as the veteran students, wanted to see that we could create more of a military cohort at our school," Chester said. "We really wanted to put something together where we can help our fellow veterans by providing mental health services in that specific way."

    Since the program's start, Chester has fielded e-mails every day from veterans who want to get involved. Six will enroll in the school's fall class.

    Massachusetts School of Professional Psychology President Nick Covino says the idea for the program came from a Latino mental health program the school began about eight years ago.

    "It was clear that folks who wanted to talk about emotional issues ... want to talk about emotional issues with somebody that understands their culture and probably want to do it with somebody that's from their culture," Covino said. "It was a natural extension to think about returning veterans."

    Having student veterans in the program has been beneficial not only to the veterans it has helped but to non-veteran graduate students who want to specialize in veteran care.

    From casual conversations to exchanging papers and working on doctoral projects together, a collaboration between veteran and non-veteran students is "radically changing the academic culture of our learning community," Covino said.

    Laptop battlefield

    Leaning over an occasionally beeping laptop in a downtown Chicago office building, Robert Kyle rolls up the sleeves of a blue button-down shirt to reveal heavily tattooed forearms.

    On one, a drawing that looks like the Grim Reaper. On the other, columns of initials. There are so many, his arm is more ink than skin.

    He explains that they're the initials of friends who died alongside him while deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq. There are 53, he says. But there are more to add he hasn't gotten around to yet.

    Kyle, who goes by his first and middle name online for security reasons, has his own set of challenges. At 26, he has survived three deployments and sustained a traumatic brain injury. He enlisted in the Army when he was 17 and served from 2003 to 2009.

    Although he still carries burdens from his deployment, since his return, he hasn't forgotten about his military family. Some, he knows personally; others, he's only met through that beeping laptop. He has dedicated his life to helping veterans connect to one another and improve their mental health.

    Kyle works as a peer coach at Vets Prevail, a free online forum and multistep mental health program. It was founded in 2009 by a small group of professionals, almost all of them veterans.

    While working as a peer coach, Kyle is pursuing a graduate degree in psychology from DePaul University.
    Six salaried professionals work at Vets Prevail, as well as three peer coaches who directly interact with veterans online. Although the peer coaches are not doctors, they complete a training process, and most important, Kyle says, they have all served on active duty.

    "When they hear that you have done what they've done, (veterans) tend to open up more than someone that has never been in a combat zone. That opens a little more trust," Kyle says. "Veterans are doing this for veterans."

    Kyle retired from service in 2009 after his injury and went back to school, earning a degree in psychology from Lees-McRae College in North Carolina.

    Since that time, he has worked to develop Vets Prevail. Now, more than 8,000 veterans from about 5,000 ZIP codes turn to the site to chat and learn coping mechanisms, and membership is rapidly increasing.
    Justin Savage, a 32-year-old Army veteran who works as the head of program development for Vets Prevail, says a large part of that success is the users' assurance that the experts on the other side of the computer screen are speaking their language.

    "We live and breathe accountability," said Savage, who returned from Iraq in 2005. "Having vets do it really brings a new level."

    "A really good fit"

    It makes sense that veterans would want to become mental health professionals, psychologist Joe Troiani says. In a military culture built on camaraderie, the desire to help a fellow veteran is natural and powerful.
    Troiani, an associate professor at the Adler School of Professional Psychology, where Schilling is a student, is also a retired Navy commander and is determined to ensure that veterans get the help they need.

    "If I was in trouble, I could pick up the phone and call some of my veteran friends," Troiani said. "You and I could have served together, and I have your back, you have my back. If something happens to you, I'm going to make sure that your family is taken care of."

    The Adler School offers training for a new post-doctorate specialty called "military clinical psychology" and since the program's start two years ago has trained about 20 students per class. The need is greater, but 20 is the cutoff to ensure the best training, Troiani says.

    Entering the mental health field can be "a really good fit personality-wise" for veterans, says Bret Moore, a former active-duty Army psychologist who completed two tours in Iraq.

    "(Service members) want to protect and help people get through difficult times," Moore said. "That's really what a psychologist does: helps people who are more vulnerable, or not as strong in a certain sense, get through difficult times."

    Taking responsibility for another human life is a familiar duty for veterans, Covino says.

    "To have been in situations where they've needed to rely on judgment and develop a capacity for reflection, an ability to act autonomously and courageously. ... Those are qualities of character you can't teach," Covino said.

    "They haven't experienced it"

    Jon Neely, a 45-year-old living in Springfield, Illinois, has been using Vets Prevail for several months and says he logs on for about an hour every week, though when he first began using it, he logged on every day. Neely served in Kosovo from 1999 to 2000 and retired from the military in 2005.

    "All too often, you go seek help from somebody that is book-learned, but they don't understand," he said. "They don't know. To me, getting help or seeking help from a non-veteran is like going to a marriage counselor that has never been married. They know all the book knowledge, but they haven't experienced it."

    Sarah Bonner, 31, an Air Force veteran who was medically discharged from Ramstein Air Base in Germany in 2006, is an active user of Vets Prevail. She says that talking to a "like-minded" person is what has kept her coming back to the site.

    She has bonded with the peer coaches, to whom she refers by their first names like friends, in a way she did not expect.

    "There were a couple times recently, I was at a really low point," she said. "I was angry, and I wasn't holding back with what I said. They don't care. If I want to cuss out and threaten to punch something, they might say, 'Let's think of softer things than the wall to punch.' ... They let you talk about the stuff that's ugly."

    "Why did all of us serve?"

    Training veterans to treat other veterans does involve some risk, Chester says. If veterans are not stable themselves, they should not treat others as mental health professionals. For that reason, it can be a good idea for them to work with a psychologist even while they administer care to others.

    There is so much training and hands-on experience involved in a post-doctorate program that it is highly unlikely a veteran who is still feeling unstable would make it all the way through, Troiani says. Rarely, but occasionally, a veteran will say, "This program is not a good fit for me," he says.

    But if it is a good fit, the results can be rewarding.

    "Why did all of us serve if not for each other?" Kyle asked. "Just because we're not in the military any more, it doesn't mean we are no longer brother and sister. It's a bond we'll have for the rest of our lives."

    Army sees highest suicide rate in July

    Post by:
    Filed under: Army
    By Jamie Crawford

    Soldiers killed themselves at a higher monthly rate in July than any other since detailed statistics have been kept on the issue, the U.S. Army said Thursday.

    A total of 38 confirmed or suspected suicides were counted by the Army last month in a tally that took into account both active and non-active duty soldiers who serve in the Army National Guard or Reserve. Three of those active duty soldiers were deployed at the time of their death.

    Prior to the announcement, the highest monthly level suicide rate for soldiers was 33 in the months of June 2010 and July 2011 according to statistics released by the Army.

    "Suicide is the toughest enemy I have faced in my 37 years in the Army. And it's an enemy that's killing not just Soldiers, but tens of thousands of Americans every year," Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, Vice Chief of Staff of the Army said in a written statement. "That said, I do believe suicide is preventable. To combat it effectively will require sophisticated solutions aimed at helping individuals to build resiliency and strengthen their life coping skills."

    To date, the Army has confirmed 120 suicides for both active and non-active duty soldiers in 2012 with 67 other deaths suspected as suicides, but still under investigation. Twenty-five of those were attributed to soldiers who did not have any previous deployments. The Army reported 242 suicides in 2009, 305 in 2010 and 283 in 2011.

    Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta told a Congressional committee last month that the U.S. military was facing an "epidemic" of suicides, and was in need of improvements in mental health services for active duty and returning troops.

    In his statement, Austin noted that with Suicide Prevention Month in September, the Army must also continue to address the stigma associated with mental health issues in the service. "Ultimately, we want the mindset across our Force and society at large to be that behavioral health is a routine part of what we do and who we are as we strive to maintain our own physical and mental wellness," he said.

    The White House lifted a ban last year on the sending of condolence letters from the president to the families of service members who commit suicide. It reversed a policy in place by previous administrations that had come under intense criticism as the country entered into its 10th year of war.

    "This issue is emotional, painful, and complicated," President Barack Obama said last July when the policy was changed. "But these Americans served our nation bravely. ... We need to do everything in our power to honor their service, and to help them stay strong for themselves, for their families and for our nation."

    Families of ‘Little Boy’ and ‘Fat Man’ Victims Still Struggling


    TOKYO, Aug 11 2012 (IPS) - Sachiko Masumura (79) was standing just two kilometres away from the hypocentre of Little Boy, the atomic bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima, Japan over six and a half decades ago.
    She lost her mother and two siblings to the horrific heat, flames and radiation that engulfed the prefecture on Aug. 6, 1945, instantly wiping out 120,000 people.
    Three days later the United States dropped a second plutonium bomb, ‘Fat Man’, on Nagasaki, killing 74,000 people according to government records.
    Thousands of others, like Masumura’s father, who died last year from leukaemia, suffered the after-effects of radiation for years.
    Masumura’s son is disabled from a brain disorder, a disease she links to the long-term impact of radiation. Though it is certainly horrifying, her family’s story is not one of a kind.
    The 67th anniversary of the 1945 U.S. bombing, the world’s only nuclear attacks on a country, is felt most sharply by thousands of second generation bomb survivors, whom the Japanese government refuses to recognise as ‘official’ victims of the tragedy.
    Kasuki Aoki, a second generation ‘hibakusha’, the Japanese term for atomic bomb survivor, told IPS that children of Hiroshima and Nagasaki victims face a double struggle: first, to gain recognition and insurance from the state as legitimate victims suffering from genetic side-effects of radiation; and secondly as bearers of their parents wishes for a nuclear-free world.
    “My parents, whose lives were torn apart when the bomb was dropped, wanted (nothing more) than to see a world rid of nuclear weapons and radiation. This is a fight we children have to follow through by speaking up on their behalf,” Aoki, who now works in the Hiroshima Kyoritsu hospital, told IPS.
    He also pointed out that the responsibility of carrying the torch for family members that suffered enourmous physical and mental damage from the bomb is daunting for the second generation, now in their fifties and sixties, who are themselves struggling to secure welfare protections from the state, such as free medical support.
    The government justifies its position by stating that there is a lack of concrete evidence of health risks among the offspring of survivors of the explosion.
    But those born after 1945 point to countless studies and reports by Japanese and U.S. research organisations that prove a much higher genetic risk of cancer for children of bomb survivors.
    Further, scientific research conducted by numerous organisations including the Hiroshima Red Cross and Atomic-bomb Survivors hospital has proved time and again that those who were directly affected suffer higher rates of cancer, especially leukaemia, from exposure to high doses of radiation.
    Hiroko Sakaguchi, who makes annual trips to the U.S. to speak out against nuclear weapons, states she has cousins who have died of cancer. Her own mother was affected by the bombing in Nagasaki that left her weakened and infirm for the rest of her life.
    Shinichi Oonaka (64) is a second-generation hibakusha in Hiroshima and spokesperson for a recently formed group under the umbrella Japan Atomic Bomb Sufferers Organisation, one of the largest in Japan, with more than 200,000 members.
    He told IPS that members of his group have begun to retire from their jobs and now find themselves facing a vulnerable future.
    “While we had jobs we were entitled to regular medical check-ups, but that will no longer be the case,” he pointed out.
    Oonaka plans to form a lobby to pressure the government to permit free and regular cancer check-ups by extending official hibakusha recognition to second-generation survivors.
    But there are many obstacles to this process. Oonaka told IPS that second generation victims remain scattered and reluctant to speak up for better treatment, fearing the same social discrimination that plagued their parents for decades.
    “Physical scarring and particularly the risk of cancer made marriage and jobs almost impossible for hibakusha,” said Oonaka, whose father, a former Japanese soldier stationed in Hiroshima city when the bomb was dropped, subsequently married a hibakusha, a common practice among first generation survivors.
    In response to the government’s indifference, Masumura launched the Kogane Friendship Organisation for people with brain disorders in July. “ We cannot wait for the government to help us anymore,” she said.
    “My death wish is to see my son, who represents the second generation of hibakusha, live independently,” she told IPS.
    High-profile international personalities, including the eldest grandson of former U.S. President Harry Truman, who ordered the bombings, attended the memorials this week in the two cities.
    Clifton Truman, attending the functions out of respect for the dead, listened to the stories of the survivors and said, “ It is now my responsibility to do all I can to make sure we do not use nuclear weapons again.”
    Oonaka says he is content to hear such comments from the former enemy, which he views as a step towards hibakusha’s dream of ensuring such suffering is never repeated.

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