Veterans treating veterans; a growing niche

By Phyllis Hanlon
April 1st, 2012

Now that the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan are winding down, this country can expect a tremendous influx of returning veterans. With this surge comes a greater need to treat the invisible wounds of war, namely posttraumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression and a host of other psychological issues.

A mental health crisis is likely in the next five to 10 years if appropriate attention is not given to war veterans and their families, according to Nicholas Covino, Ph.D., president of the Massachusetts School of Professional Psychology. “The general idea that those with military trauma will be served by the VA (Veteran’s Administration) is not completely accurate. Some will, but only about 25 percent of the time,” he says. “Most of the military don’t go to the VA, especially those in the National Guard. They’ll continue to get health care from traditional sources, like hospitals and HMOs.”

To adequately serve the needs of these men and women, practitioners need to step outside their comfort zones and gain some understanding of the sequelae of combat, military culture and adjustment issues families face before, during and after deployment, Covino says. “We have to create responsibility among mental health professionals to do the right thing by the veterans. A review of the literature suggests straightforward, common sense approaches that can and should be done by any mental health professional to address the problems of separation and reintegration,” he says, noting that families potentially face years of adjustment difficulties after a military parent returns from overseas.

“Our profession has a responsibility to revise and rework our practices to learn about military culture and equip ourselves with techniques to deal with veterans and families presenting with complaints. This matches what we’ve learned in graduate school,” Covino says. Unresponsiveness because of the perception of inadequate skill sets will create social problems such as homelessness, divorce and alcoholism, in the future, he says.

Christopher M. King, professor of MSPP’s Organizational and Leadership Psychology Department, points out that psychologists in various specialty areas could benefit by learning about the culture and barriers veterans face in accessing mental health professionals. “For instance, you really can’t understand family dynamics unless you understand the deployment cycle,” he says. “There is a cycle of behavior that changes and brings different stresses during different stages [throughout the deployment process].”

One Marine veteran who has accepted the call to work with his fellow veterans is Greg Matos, who anticipates graduating from MSPP this May. As a veteran, he has the advantage of understanding “the cultural lens veterans and their families have.” He says, “We all have unique, but relatively uniform, experiences, such as deployment cycles, indoctrination, living on base and off. There are threads of commonality,” he says. “[Veterans] understand this and potentially are able to understand in a quicker way when someone talks about these experiences.” After graduation, Matos will enter the Navy as a commissioned officer and a psychologist.

As part of a grant program, MSPP, in collaboration with the Department of Veterans Services, is sponsoring a one-day workshop titled “Beyond ‘Thank You for Your Service’” on May 18. The conference will feature keynote speaker Connie L. Best, Ph.D., professor in the psychiatry and behavioral sciences department at the Medical University of South Carolina. King says, “Her deep experience treating PTSD is grounded in empirical scientific research and she helped write the Navy’s PTSD manual.” Other workshops will address veteran related topics including appropriate therapeutic interventions and working with spouses and children of veterans.

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