The Soldiers Project: Mental Health Care Confidential

By Sari Gelzer
t r u t h o u t | Report

Friday 09 May 2008

The significant numbers of returning service members and veterans who are in need of mental health care have recently been put into the spotlight by a RAND Corporation report, which found approximately 300,000 men and women who served in Iraq and Afghanistan suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or major depression.

However, psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Dr. Judith Broder did not need to hear statistics four years ago to realize the wars being fought in Iraq and Afghanistan were going to have a profound psychological impact on returning troops.

In 2004, after seeing the play "The Sand Storm: Stories From the Front," written by Iraq war veteran Sean Huze, Dr. Broder said that she became strikingly aware of the horrific experience some troops were having in Iraq with regards to what they were seeing and doing.

Inspired by Huze's play, Dr. Broder founded The Soldiers Project, a non-profit group of mental health professionals who offer free mental health services to Iraq and Afghanistan service members, veterans and their families.

The Soldiers Project will be hosting an upcoming conference on May 16-18 in Los Angeles, aimed at bringing attention to the mental health experiences and needs of returning troops.

Congressman Bob Filner (D-California), chairman of the House of Representatives Committee on Veterans' Affairs, will speak at the conference about the need for reform in mental health care for returning veterans and active duty members.

"This war is producing tens of thousands of young people who have PTSD and/or brain injury. Unless we more adequately diagnose and treat these people, we are going to see more suicides, domestic violence, homelessness, all of which can be prevented if you accurately diagnose people and get them into treatment," Filner told Truthout.

Filner said that he is attempting to get more federal funding for organizations like The Soldiers Project.

"If the VA [Department of Veterans Affairs] is not doing its job, at least some people have stepped in to try and do it," said Filner.

Training and Reintegration

The Soldiers Project trains mental health professionals to be able to work with the unique needs of returning veterans because many therapists in private practice are "insulated from the horrors of war as our whole population is," according to Dr. Broder.
In Dr. Broder's experience, the hardest part for her as a therapist is hearing how horrible some soldiers feel about themselves when returning home.

"It tears my heart out because these are young people who were raised to love their neighbors and to believe that killing is wrong. But, because its necessary in war to partially undo these lessons, it has destroyed or fractured their character in some ways," she said.

The best way to reintegrate their personality back into civilian society, according to Dr. Broder, requires service members to establish a relationship with a therapist who can bear witness to what they have gone through.

The confidentiality offered by The Soldiers Project, and the openness to the wide definition of family members and loved ones who are eligible for treatment, have made The Soldiers Project a distinct alternative from mental health services offered by the Department of Defense, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) or by Vet Centers.

Stigma Within

An online survey conducted by The American Psychiatric Association found three out of five members of the military worry that seeking help for mental health problems will harm their military careers. The RAND report also found over half of those with symptoms of PTSD did not seek treatment.

Representative Filner said he wants the military to demonstrate that confronting and dealing with mental health is something they encourage. "The army and marines should take a midlevel officer, who admitted he had PTSD and was treated for it, and promote him to general so people know that the culture accepts it rather than a stigma being against it," said Filner.

Iraq war veteran Jim Castellanos, who served six years in the Marine Corps, is scheduled to be a panelist at the upcoming conference. He witnessed first hand, while serving in Iraq, the stigma that surrounds getting treatment. Castellanos prefaced his story with an apology about the graphic nature contained in it. "When we were in Iraq, when my roommate was killed and his brain matter was on his rifle because he got hit by shrapnel, one of our staff sergeants had to go and clean out his rifle with a hose. That shook him up really bad," said Castellanos.

Castellanos said that once the staff sergeant started seeing a psychiatrist in Iraq while they were still deployed, the command blatantly disrespected the staff sergeant with comments implying that he was weak. When the capable staff sergeant was given work, his higher-ups would give him missions with the least responsibility, such as filling sandbags. Castellanos described this as a show of disdain.

Due to this stigma, many of her clients are encouraged to come in by family members. "In many cases, it usually starts with a phone call to The Soldiers Project from a girlfriend or wife saying that their man has returned and they can barely recognize him, but that they love him and want to save the relationship," said Dr. Broder.

The bureaucracy of the VA has created barriers for some family members. The VA will only see the spouse of a veteran who is legally married, according to Dr. Broder. They do not see those who have been in long-term relationships but aren't married, those who are in homosexual relationships, grandmothers who might be primary caretakers, or any family member if the veteran has not gone to the VA and registered themselves.

In addition to restrictions for family members, Dr. Broder said that other barriers exist for veterans as well. The VA does not see mental health patients on nights or weekends, which creates limitations to those who have strict work schedules.

The vet centers, which are funded by the VA, are much more accessible and welcoming to service members, according to Dr. Broder, but they too have restrictions. They limit services to only those who have been in a combat zone.

"This excludes the radio operators who are hearing all the time about who is being killed and where bodies are being taken," said Dr. Broder, noting that this excludes a portion of veterans who deserve treatment but are not receiving it.

"The issue of mental health has been underplayed and nobody wants to admit the extent of it," said Filner, explaining why the VA doesn't have sufficient resources to handle the mental health needs of returning veterans.

Obligation of a Nation

The Soldiers Project is an example of people around the nation who want to help these young men and women coming back, according to Representative Filner.

The group of close to 200 mental health care professionals was started in Los Angeles and now has affiliated groups in Chicago, New York and Seattle.

Dr. Broder hopes programs like The Soldiers Project will appear all over the country, especially near bases and in smaller cities where services are not easily available.

On Friday night, the play that inspired the inception of The Soldiers Project four years ago will make its way to Los Angeles again, featuring a performance by the playwright Huze.

"I hope it grabs everyone the way it grabbed me," said Dr. Broder, "there is something emotional about knowing why we are doing what we are doing."