July 1st, 2010

Military Support Program running out of funds

A Connecticut program that provides behavioral health services to soldiers and their families is seeking federal funding to continue.

The Military Support Program (MSP) has helped hundreds of military personnel and family members with free confidential outpatient counseling, referrals, advocacy and case management services since its inception in 2007.

The state created the program – said to be the first of its kind in the nation to serve both military personnel and family members – with funds from the sale of Fairfield Hills Hospital and it falls under the state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services. The funds are running out, and there is no money in the state budget to continue the program.

Maj. Gen. Thaddeus Martin, the state’s adjutant general for the Connecticut National Guard and members of the state’s Congressional delegation are pursuing federal funding through the National Defense Authorization Act.

Program Director Jim Tackett says the MSP already has fielded 1,800 calls from individuals seeking services, with more than 800 people benefitting from individual outpatient counseling and 600 taking advantage of a transportation assistance program that aims to prevent individuals from dropping out of treatment because of transportation costs. About 60 percent of those who seek treatment are in the military and 40 percent are family members.

Counseling addresses such issues as anxiety, depression, PTSD, marriage/family counseling, adolescent matters and substance abuse. The MSP may refer military personnel to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) for services and vice versa.

The program began when members of the General Assembly became concerned about the behavioral health needs of National Guard and Reserve military personnel returning from Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom, many of whom weren’t yet eligible for such services under the U.S. Department of Defense.

“Our charge as the state mental health authority was to provide behavioral health services of a transitional nature,” Tackett says. “We were positioned as a bridge for soldiers to the VA,” and to also serve family members, which can include a spouse, child, parent, grandparent, sibling or significant other.

The program has continued to grow, both in terms of those seeking treatment and the number of clinicians involved. “We started with 90 or so clinicians,” Tackett says. “Since 2007, we’ve grown to nearly 400 clinicians. We have a great mix and a wide range of specialties and interests.”

About 60 percent are private providers, while others work through state-funded agencies.

The MSP promises confidentiality. “There are quite a few soldiers who are concerned about confidentiality,” Tackett says. For example, a soldier who wants to make a career out of the military may not want to access TRICARE (the health care program serving active duty service members) and have his or her information made common knowledge.

“We’ll take them on the MSP program because we can promise confidentiality,” Tackett says.

“We’re repeatedly reminded by the soldiers that we meet that they don’t want anybody to know (that they are seeking services) because they are concerned about how they will be defined by their leadership or fellow soldiers or that they will be seen as weak or that they will see themselves as weak, as well.”

At Martin’s request, the MSP in early 2009 began to embed clinicians within units of the National Guard. Currently, 24 clinicians are embedded and take part in drill weekends. “They are a familiar face within the unit,” Tackett says. “They are a key point of contact for accessing behavioral health services.”

The counselors begin working with troops long before the unit is deployed, building relationships and assisting family members after deployment.

“The embedded clinicians are there to engage soldiers and normalize the whole process and talk openly and honestly about what we know now about deployment and the rather prevalent psychological and behavior challenges connected to homecoming, for instance, and to encourage treatment,” Tackett says. “In that way, we are directly taking on stigma.”

Tackett adds that the program’s funds will run out in the spring. If federal funding is approved, it would be available Oct. 1 of this year. Ideally, the program needs about $500,000 annually to continue, he says and Tackett hopes the MSP will eventually be able to increase the number of embedded clinicians and strategically increase attention given to family members. “We’d like to do more significant outreach.” he says.

By Pamela Berard

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