Mental Health Needs of Veterans Are Stressing Out Buffalo VA

The Buffalo News

November 7, 2008 – Dana Cushing is a disabled veteran who is supposed to receive an hour of counseling each week through the Buffalo VA. But she shares that hour of a psychologist’s time with 15 others in group therapy.

“So you have 60 minutes divided by 15 people. That’s four minutes apiece, and that’s not going to help,” Cushing said.

She is not alone.

Returning war veterans are seeking help for depression, anger and other mental health problems in record numbers in Buffalo Veterans Affairs Medical Center and similar hospitals around the country.

The most common treatment is medication.

In fact, the number of prescriptions given to local veterans to help them with mental problems has increased from about 1,700 seven years ago to almost 8,000 in the 2007-08 fiscal year.

The problem is that medicine, on its own, does not teach the veterans how to cope.

That is why a campaign is under way to enlist psychologists and other mental health providers to work with war veterans.

There’s just one catch. There’s no pay. It’s volunteered time. Not a lot. Just one hour a week.

“We’re appealing to the social and moral conscience of behavioral providers in the community to reach out and offer one hour per week,” said Thomas P. McNulty, president of Mental Health Services of Erie County. “Soldiers and their families deserve nothing but the very best from our community.”

The need is pressing and will continue to grow, according to Barbara Van Dahlen Romberg, national founder and president of Give an Hour.

“I hear from some veterans that it is difficult to get immediate appointments and frequent appointments,” she said.

The effort here and in other states comes at a time when more federal money is pouring into the Department of Veterans Affairs to treat psychologically injured veterans.

Critics say there is too much emphasis on medication and not enough on counseling. Antidepressants top the list of medicines prescribed to returning Iraq and Afghanistan veterans at the Buffalo VA, which has spent more than $2 million on psychiatric medications since 2001.

E-mails to Romberg from the loved ones of veterans across the country often express concern that the vets are “primarily receiving medications and not enough counseling,” she said.

A volunteer force of psychologists is “nimble and fluid” and can fill in the gaps as needed, Romberg said.

The demand for counseling is expected to continue to increase as more veterans return home, McNulty said. To date, an estimated 1.6 million service members have spent time in Iraq or Afghanistan.

“What we’re hearing is that the wave of veterans returning will put undue stress on the current system, and new resources must be identified to meet that need,” he said, adding that he is working with VA employees who cannot be faulted for the growing demands.

And, McNulty says, it’s not only veterans who need the care.

Their family members, children especially, need counseling to cope with extended absences caused by multiple deployments.

“Let’s say the mom is the one in the service, and mom’s not home two years. The kids feel bad. They’ve lost two years. Then mommy, or daddy, returns from the war into a home that is already stressed by their absence,” McNulty said. “In addition, there’s the issues the soldier brings home.”

There are others, as well, who could benefit from the planned local chapter of Give an Hour. Consider Army veteran Christopher Simmance.

Over the last two years, the City of Tonawanda man says he has seen four or five psychiatrists and is awaiting assignment of a new one.

“My old psychiatrist quit in May. He told me he couldn’t stand how the VA was treating vets. He gave me a bunch of refills,” said Simmance, who developed post-traumatic stress disorder several years after serving in a Middle East international peacekeeping force.

Medication alone, the vets say, doesn’t heal. Yet it is a big part of their treatment. And while the VA’s mental health staff might appear sufficient in number to treat the more than 2,000 new war veterans of the last several years, these men and women are not the only ones who rely on the VA.

Each year, the Buffalo VA treats more than 40,000 veterans, who are all entitled to care from its 11 full-time psychiatrists and 70-plus psychologists, social workers, addiction therapists and part-time mental health workers.

Working with McNulty to launch the local volunteer effort a few weeks from now is Christopher M. Kreiger, a disabled Army veteran, who suffered traumatic brain injuries serving in Iraq and post-traumatic stress. “I’ve been out trying to push to see if psychiatrists would be willing to donate an hour a week to a veteran in need who cannot get it at the VA,” Kreiger said. “Even the staff that works at the VA says there’s a shortage.”

Rather than sit at home and complain, Kreiger, of the Town of Tonawanda, says working to help fellow veterans has helped him. “The more I get into it, the more my problems don’t seem so big,” he said, explaining that idle time is a big problem for psychologically wounded veterans.

“I just sit at home. I just watch TV,” Simmance said.

At one point, he said the VA wanted to assign him to a foreign- born psychiatrist. He refused, claiming his overseas military experiences would make it difficult for him to open up to that particular doctor.

Simmance said he consumes up to four prescription drugs a day for his post-traumatic stress. Bret Mandell, an Army veteran who has seen action in Iraq and Afghanistan, described similar experiences in dealing with the VA, adding that he has taken up to seven different medications for posttraumatic stress.

“Every time I went up there, they kept switching me around to different people, and I couldn’t get a good relationship with anyone to where it benefited me,” Mandell said of the VA.

Tracy Kinn, a New York State veterans counselor, says vets need to be proactive if they want to secure VA services.

“They work for us, but they are very overworked,” said Kinn, a former Marine. Veterans who don’t take a proactive approach, she said, may wind up only with medications and “without the care.”

Jeremy Lepsch, a psychologically disabled Marine from North Tonawanda, said he has noticed progress in the level of VA care. “It seems they’ve talked to the staff because everyone seems a lot more friendly and caring,” Lepsch said.

The VA also has enhanced its day treatment facility on Main Street at Hertel Avenue, describing it as a “psycho-social rehabilitation recovery center,” according to Buffalo VA spokeswoman Evangeline Conley.

“We’re learning and modifying the programs based on current needs and what seems to be best for veterans,” Conley said.

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