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Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center - Houston, Texas

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VA Houston Says Combat Veterans Need Mental Health Care

May 28, 2007
Houston Public Radio KUHF 88.7 FM (NPR)
By: Laurie Johnson | Monday, May 28, 2007

Soldiers coming back from combat have higher risks for psychiatric problems. It can also be difficult for them to re-enter normal life. As Houston Public Radio's Laurie Johnson reports, caseworkers at the Michael DeBakey VA Medical Center are screening all returning soldiers in the area for mental health issues.

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Those who have served on the front lines in Iraq and Afghanistan have a difficult time readjusting. Sue Bailey is the director of the Trauma Recovery Program at the VA Medical Center. She says reintegrating into civilian life is a big issue -- things like going back to school and jobs and leaving the combat mindset.

"Well some of the things that are functional in battle like, for instance, startling easily if you hear a loud noise or avoiding certain kinds of traffic situations, that's very functional if you're in Iraq. But it's not very functional if you're trying to get through Houston traffic. So there are things that help people save their lives in combat that, then when they get back here, it's sometimes problematic."

In addition to simply reintegrating, returning troops are susceptible to more serious mental health issues such as depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder. Bailey says their goal is to screen every recent combat veteran returning to the Houston region.

"We send people from this hospital and the other hospitals also to try to work with them to let them know what they can expect when they come back. And here at the hospital one of the things we do is that we screen every single person who comes to the hospital that's returning from Iraq and Afghanistan for mental health issues. It's part of the normal screening, they don't have to be referred to us."

One challenge the caseworkers face is the stigma attached to mental health treatment. That's why Bailey says they make mental health screening a normal and automatic part of the health program at the hospital. So any returning veteran who goes there for physical treatment will automatically receive mental health treatment.

"What happens in some settings is that they're screened in primary care and somebody identifies a problem like with depression or PTSD, then they send for a more intensive screening. But we say to these individuals, these men and women, that we want to talk with you. We spend maybe an hour and a half or two hours in that screen, giving them educational information and saying that what you may be experiencing is normal, that's what can be expected from coming back from a war zone."

That message of normalcy is the one Bailey says is most important. Veterans need to know that it's normal to come back and experience stress, job concerns and even problems readjusting to family life. In fact, she says it would be strange to encounter someone who has been in combat who does not experience some of these issues. Laurie Johnson, Houston Public Radio News.

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