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Counselors’ Lack of Military Knowledge Dissuades Veterans from Continuing Treatment

Veterans returning from combat with post-traumatic stress disorder, substance abuse disorders, and other serious mental health issues are not finding enough solace from professional counseling, say experts. These veterans face a stone wall when seeking treatment as most counselors are unfamiliar with service members’ ways of life and unique experiences, resulting in the majority of veteran patients discontinuing treatment after just one appointment.

With the surplus of active military now returning from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) medical departments are bombarded more than ever with growing numbers of mental health cases among veterans, and not enough staff to treat them in an efficient time frame. In August of this year, the U.S. Army Substance Abuse Program advertised 130 job openings in its department for mental health experts, including substance abuse counselors and psychologists of all specialties-yet reports are showing that this addition of 30% more counseling staff has only skimmed the surface of solving the mental health crisis for veterans. The VA released new data finding 300,000 more veterans are seeking mental health support within the last few years, a figure which only alludes to the surmounting number of pending cases the VA will face once all service members return home at the end of the year.

In addition to the unacceptably long waiting lines for seeing a VA counselor, military personnel often fear being stigmatized if they make their mental health condition known to their department. Some service members believe their jobs can be put in jeopardy if a diagnosis makes them seem ‘unfit’ in performing their duties. Once home, veterans sometimes turn to civilian counselors instead, only to find a lack of understanding of military culture, despite counselors’ professional competency. According to a recent report from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMSHA), veterans feel a disconnect between themselves and their counselors due to their unfamiliarity with daily military life, routines, and language. Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans who are in serious need of mental health treatment, like the 16% with post-traumatic stress disorder, are finding themselves having to explain to counselors terminology, locations, and scenarios with which only active or former military members would be familiar-a challenge which further complicates their efforts in seeking treatment. That feeling of miscommunication can be discouraging to warriors who already have negative experiences with mental health treatment and can make their efforts seem futile, which is why so many do not return to treatment. As a result, 20% of 2.1 million veterans are believed to be suffering from a serious mental health condition, and more are dying of suicide every day than they are from combat.

With stressors still lingering from the Iraq war environment-where improvised explosive devices and surprise attacks can happen at any moment within civilian regions, demanding the need to constantly be on the defense-readjusting to their civilian home life can almost seem impossible for U.S. veterans. Establishing trust in a reliable practitioner who can be seen regularly is integral to veterans’ recovery from their mental health wounds which span everything from traumatic brain injury to alcoholism. Where the VA’s behavioral health system is failing, civilian counselors are needed to help fill the void and serve veterans in need before they slip through the cracks. To help better treat these veteran patients, SAMSHA has established new initiatives to encourage civilian practitioners to undergo specialized training. Online webinars, speaker series, and credit and non-credit interactive courses (such as Operation Immersion, or OI) are now available for counselors to help them become acclimated with military culture and understand the needs of this high-risk population. According to SAMSHA, these trainings help various counselors build rapport among their veteran patients, allowing the service members to be more forthcoming during sessions and build mutual trust. SAMSHA also encourages practitioners to become certified under TRICARE-the health care insurer which covers most members of the military and their families-so that more veterans have access to treatment.

In the meantime, the most viable connection to successful treatment that these vulnerable veterans can obtain-is from other veterans. The Associated Press announced today that a New Jersey-based veteran-to-veteran crisis hotline which has experienced positive results for the last six years will now be available nationwide. The peer counseling program, called Vets4Warriors, is free and open to all service members and veterans as well as members of the National Guard and military reserves. Vets4Warriors’ toll-free hotline is 1-855-VET-TALK and is available 24 hours a day.

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