Thursday, May 15, 2008

A new source of mental health care for veteransMental care that’s free, confidential

A new source of mental health care for veteransMental care that’s free, confidential

MICHAEL GILBERT; Published: May 15th, 2008 06:35 AM | Updated: May 15th, 2008 06:36 AMA group of mental health care providers in Washington is offering free help to Iraq and Afghanistan veterans and their families who either can’t or don’t want to go through traditional channels for care. The Soldiers Project Northwest is modeled after a similar effort in Los Angeles, where volunteer therapists since 2004 have seen clients without charge for help with their war-related problems.
“The war just feels so big. The problems of the country feel so big. This is something that I can do,” said Tim Mallon, a University Place mental health counselor who is taking part in the Northwest effort. “I’ve got the training to do it, and the need is there. It’s pretty simple, really.”

Organizers say they’re offering help to people who might not be covered under the military’s health care system or who aren’t eligible for care through the Veterans Affairs Department.

They also say they suspect many active-duty service members in the area might not seek care through the military because they’re afraid it will hurt their careers. This option may offer more peace of mind.

“It’s not going through the insurance, so there are no records,” said Trisha Pearce, a Skagit County psychiatric nurse who has taken the lead in organizing the Soldiers Project. “It’s really confidential on a level they won’t get in other places.”

A RAND Corp. study released last month said 1 in 5 service members returning from Iraq and Afghanistan report symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder and major depression, but only half have sought treatment.

The report said there are too few treatment providers for returning service members, and that many service members still won’t seek help out of fear of repercussions from their commanders.

The VA and the Department of Defense have also been under pressure from Congress to expand the availability and quality of mental health care for service members and veterans.

Pearce said the Soldiers Project is not meant to be a reflection on the quality of care at the VA or in the military – just that some people fall through the cracks.

For example, she said, parents and siblings of deployed service members aren’t eligible for care under the two systems, and might not have coverage elsewhere.

“A lot of times these are vets who just come back and are not interested in going anywhere near the VA, so the wife or the mom is out there, distraught about what they have seen happen to their son or their spouse,” said Dr. Judith Broder, a Los Angeles psychiatrist who founded the Soldiers Project there in 2004.

Broder said the project in Southern California has developed a strong working relationship with the VA and veterans service organizations. She has 135 volunteer providers who have seen more than 120 clients, she said.

“The number is increasing. Probably at this point we’re getting two or three new referrals a week,” Broder said.

Providers in Chicago and New York are also creating spinoffs of the Los Angeles program.

Pearce said she too has been working to cultivate relationships with counselors at the VA’s deployment health clinic in Seattle, meeting with the clinic director and attending its staff meetings.

The director, Dr. Steven Hunt, couldn’t be reached for comment on this story.

A spokeswoman at Madigan Army Medical Center said she hadn’t heard yet of Soldiers Project. She said the Army hospital at Fort Lewis provides an array of mental health services to soldiers, particularly those returning from war-zone deployments.

Soldiers’ spouses and children are covered for mental health care through the military’s TRICARE insurance program and can see off-post providers.

Service members also can arrange to see off-post counselors through the Military OneSource program, which covers a range of issues in a setup that’s similar to civilian employee assistance programs.

Pearce said she began working on the local project last October after answering an ad in a workshop calendar for therapists.

About 90 have attended meetings to organize the project so far, and of those, about 15 are ready to begin seeing clients for post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and other mental health problems, Pearce said.

Providers must be licensed and have malpractice insurance. Pearce also insists on meeting each in person to talk about the project’s approach.

Pearce went out to Friday’s celebration and resource fair at the American Lake Veterans Golf Course to meet VA representatives and talk up the program. She said she had to keep emphasizing that the project has no strings attached.

“We’re not billing insurance. We’re not bartering,” she said. “No one is building a practice around this. It’s free.”

And she said the volunteer therapists aren’t coming to the program to advance a political point of view about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“I have the feeling that it doesn’t really help to get into that argument, and it definitely doesn’t help in the military culture to get into that argument,” Pearce said. “It isn’t a political thing. If you make it political, you’re going to cut out a whole bunch of people who need help.”

Michael Gilbert: 253-597-8921

To learn more

For more information about Soldiers Project Northwest or to be referred to one of the project’s therapists, e-mail or call 206-290-1035.

The project is hosting a meeting for mental health treatment providers at 7 p.m. May 29 at St. Leo Church, 710 S. 13th St., Tacoma.

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