Thursday, January 15, 2009

Combat vets' needs seen as escalating

Combat vets' needs seen as escalating

By Scott Huddleston - Express-News A national suicide-prevention conference focusing on war stress wrapped up Wednesday, a day after the Marine Corps released its highest suicide figures since 2003.

In closing remarks, Dr. Ira Katz, chief of mental health with the Department of Veterans Affairs, told hundreds of military, VA and civilian mental health professionals to keep forming collaborations and to “prepare ourselves for giving” to a growing number of combat veterans needing care.

“We have to collaborate. We care for the same people,” he said as the Annual Suicide Prevention Conference, sponsored by the Department of Defense and the VA, drew to a close.

The Marines reported Tuesday that 41 deaths from confirmed or suspected suicide occurred in 2008, up from 33 in 2007. The Army's figures have steadily risen from 67 in 2004 to 115 in 2007, but numbers for 2008 have not been released.

Air Force Lt. Col. Jay Stone, a Defense Department psychologist who oversees clinical standards of care, said topics discussed at the meeting may lead to new policy on issues related to suicide, such as post-traumatic stress disorder and barriers that keep troops from asking for help.

“Really, everything is sort of fair game right now,” he said.

President-elect Barack Obama has said he would seek more specialty centers to treat brain injury and PTSD, and more mental health clinics to treat sexual trauma and substance abuse. But part of the focus of the conference was the stigma that exists among troops on the ground.

One of the week's highlights came as the family of Pfc. Jason Scheuerman, who shot himself in Iraq, said he was ridiculed and told he was faking thoughts of suicide in hopes of being sent home.

His brother, Christopher Scheuerman Jr., a former Army chaplain assistant, said other troops are being denied help. While in Afghanistan, he saw a chaplain call a solider stupid and cowardly for wanting to commit suicide. The problem won't be solved unless lessons learned at the conference reach the battlefield, he said.

“For every one of us, there are five others out there who just don't care,” he said.

Military and VA professionals also heard from civilian speakers, including Kevin Hines, who survived an attempted suicide jump from the Golden Gate Bridge in 2000, and Eric Hipple, a 1980s Detroit Lions quarterback whose 15-year-old son took his life in 2000.

Hipple said he never confronted his own depression until after his son's death. He said young rank-and-file troops may often get depressed because they feel unimportant and disconnected from the mission.

“We are all a part of something larger than us,” Hipple said Wednesday. “And sometimes we lose that connectivity.”

The theme of the conference was “Building Community Connections,” and some of the discussion centered on public awareness campaigns to make troops, and civilians in surrounding communities, aware of the warning signs for suicide. A video that the Army plans to distribute this year features Hipple and Hines.

Stone said the mental health community also is trying to break “systemic barriers” that keep troops from getting help. For years, the dreaded “Question 21” they faced when reapplying for security clearance was seen as a threat; the applicant is asked if he's ever received mental health counseling or treatment. In April, the Defense Department began letting troops answer “no” if they've had marital, family or grief counseling, or help adjusting from deployment.

While some Army posts have had more success than others in dealing with mental health, Fort Hood is considered a model because of the support the post gets from Killeen and other nearby towns, Stone said.

“There's a lot of openness, collaboration and sharing of ideas,” he said.

Sphere: Related Content