Vets' unspoken illness

Posted: November 11, 2008

WHEN CHRIS Hill was honorably discharged from the Marines in 1982, he made sure to remove the medical records in his permanent file about his visits to a psychiatrist. Hill, who was experiencing severe anxiety attacks, was afraid to be labeled as a veteran with psychiatric problems.

"I was embarrassed about it at the time," said Hill, who's now a mental-health counselor for the Jefferson Center for Mental Health in Jefferson County, Colo. "There was a stigma in my own mind about it . . . As a Marine, I didn't want to appear weak."

Research shows that Hill's trepidation isn't unique among members of the armed forces.

A 2004 study of 6,000 military men and women involved in ground combat in Iraq and Afghanistan found that of those whose responses indicated a mental-health problem, only 23 to 40 percent sought help. Many who didn't seek treatment cited fear of being stigmatized as a reason.

After leaving the Marines, Hill struggled with alcohol, attempted suicide and said he "lost every material thing I ever owned." Hitting bottom taught him he had to deal with his alcoholism and depression, and he finally began psychiatric counseling.

For the thousands of vets like Hill who return with physical and mental scars, their wounds can present particular challenges for years. The wars overseas rarely make front-page news these days, but they still loom large for families left behind during tours of duty and dealing with the war's aftermath in the form of veterans returning with post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression and substance abuse.

Nearly 300,000 veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan suffer from either post-traumatic stress or depression, according to a recent study by the RAND Corp. The Department of Veterans Affairs says mental health is the second largest area of illness for these veterans.

Some of these troubled vets seek help from a network of community mental-health centers nationwide. Their deep community roots make them well-suited to counsel vets by involving churches, synagogues, schools and other institutions in an approach that treats the entire family.

Soon, more vets may be able to get counseling from community organizations. On Oct. 10, President Bush signed the Veterans Mental Health and Other Care Improvements Act. It directs the Veterans Administration to contract with community health organizations to provide mental-health services in rural areas in which access to VA services is inadequate.

BUT WE shouldn't expect the pros to go it alone. Everyone has a role in helping vets overcome the stigma of mental illness. A few easy ways to help to that include:

* Talk about your family's experiences with mental illnesses and addictions as you would about other medical conditions. Mental illnesses and addictions need to come fully out of the closet.

* Decide to become literate about mental illness and addictions. Read and ask questions about and look for courses on mental-health literacy in your community.

* Support vets groups and your local mental-health center's efforts to make mental health and addiction treatment available in every community.

On this Veterans Day, whether we are a veteran, family member, friend, co-worker or simply a concerned citizen, we all need to make sure we continue to fight the stigma attached to seeking mental health treatment.

We need to do go the extra yard to ensure that veterans who may be suffering from mental illnesses receive the help they need. *

Linda Rosenberg is president and CEO of the National Council for Community Behavioral Healthcare.

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