Kadner: Help for troubled veterans
There are lots of speeches made about the “heroes” who serve this country in the military.
But when they come home from Afghanistan or Iraq, except for families and close friends, too many veterans feel abandoned and alone.
I don’t mean to suggest there ought to be more parades, memorials or public celebrations thanking veterans for their service. What’s needed is a better understanding about the wounded warriors who return to civilian life.
After writing about such a person in a recent column, I received several calls from veterans and family members of veterans telling me about the problems they’ve experienced.
About one in three veterans returning from our recent wars have what mental health experts call “adaptation issues,” according to Paige Lassen, a psychiatrist at Hines Veterans Administration Hospital.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is one of the more common problems among veterans, a psychiatric ailment that’s considered treatable but not curable.
PTSD symptoms include hyperarousal marked by anxiety, an overreaction to noise, light sleep (or no sleep), feeling on edge all the time, an inability to concentrate and irritability.
“They often tend to sit at a table with their backs to a wall,” Lassen said, so they can see what’s going on without being surprised by a noise.
Another group of symptoms are called avoidance behavior. People suffering from PTSD will sometimes stay away from events such as concerts, movie theaters, shopping malls or other places people gather for enjoyment.
And a third group of symptoms includes reliving past experiences through nightmares, frightening thoughts or, in the most dramatic cases, flashbacks where the person is unaware of where he is.
“They may throw themselves to the ground because they actually believe they’re seeing an explosion,” Lassen said.
There is help through medication and therapy provided by the Veterans Administration. A crisis hotline, 1-800-273-8255, is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It’s confidential for veterans and their family members.
Hines has 43 psychiatrists available to treat veterans, 250 mental support staff and six community outpatient clinics in addition to the hospital near Maywood.
There’s a Hines outpatient clinic at 10201 Cicero Ave., Oak Lawn, and Lassen, who often treats patients there, said veterans in crisis don’t need an appointment. They can just walk through the door from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday and a therapist will see them.
There’s also information available about mental health care and a self-screening test on the Hines website (www.hines.va.gov). Just click on the “veteran’s services” tab.
Lassen said she not only treats young veterans who have served in Afghanistan and Iraq but older ones as well.
“I have a couple of Vietnam veterans I’m seeing right now,” she said.
The Vietnam veterans, Lassen explained, managed to cope with their symptoms for years while they were employed but after retirement found themselves focusing on memories of their war experiences.
Hines also has a mobile outreach unit that travels to American Legion and VFW halls, which can be scheduled by calling (708) 202-8387, ext. 20011.
I told Lassen that some of the parents who called me felt their children were “in trouble” but weren’t sure how to reach out to them.
“I wouldn’t press them (vets) on what kinds of problems they were having,” she cautioned parents, “but I would emphasize that family members offer support. Ask what you can do to help or if there is anything you can do for them.”
Listening is good. Pushing, not so good.
But family members can get as frustrated, worried and angry as the veterans they love. For spouses, the VA offers free treatment.
But extended family members also are impacted and feel helpless as they watch their loved one withdraw or erupt in fits of unexplained anger.
And the fact is that people are often afraid to get treatment for mental health issues.
Those who are employed worry that if it becomes known they’re suffering from a mental illness they will lose their jobs.
Those who are looking for work worry that no one will hire them if they find out they’ve undergone treatment for such a problem.
And those fears only generate greater anxiety in the person who is suffering from PTSD.
That’s why we all have to be careful about using stereotypes to describe people who have a mental illness.
Every time we do that we’re telling people around us who may someday need mental health care that they likely will be ridiculed (or feared) if they seek the help they need.
If we’re going to send men and women into combat zones for years at a time, we ought to be prepared to cope with their problems and support them when they return home.
For hundreds of thousands of our veterans, the battle doesn’t end the day they’re released from service or a war comes to an end. Lassen noted that the symptoms of PTSD can show up weeks, years or even decades later.
Military families may find a lot of support in a community when a serviceman is overseas, but often find themselves coping alone with the consequences of combat.
About 250,000 veterans of Afghanistan and Iraq have been diagnosed with PTSD, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs.
If treated, most people can recover in a short period of time and lead normal lives.
But the cost of war should never be measured only in dollars.
The price is always beyond measure.