Tag Archives: veterans

From Combat to Counseling: Service members, veterans and military family mental health

By Duane France July 14, 2019

 

This is the debut article of what is intended to be a monthly online column about counseling military-affiliated clients.

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Service members, veterans and their families face some unique challenges both during and after military service. There’s the stuff that is widely known — deployments, constant moving, a regimented lifestyle — and then there’s the stuff that isn’t so well-known. This includes the experience of living in a mutually supportive community; a lack of individualism and getting used to relying on others while others rely on you; for veterans, a lack of purpose and meaning in post-military life; for family members, experiencing the aftermath of the military, because it’s a stressful job. No one is getting out of the military without a couple of dents in the fender.

Sometimes, the challenges faced by the military population turn into crisis. The high rate of suicide in the service members, veterans and their families (SMVF) community is well-known. Given a higher level of exposure to trauma, service members and veterans may be more likely to develop posttraumatic stress disorder and other psychological conditions. And with greater physical danger comes a higher risk of catastrophic injury, which comes with its own problems, including the need to adjust to a new reality.

This is where the counseling profession comes in. As clinical mental health professionals, we are uniquely qualified to help the SMVF population live the life that they desire and deserve. We look at mental health from a wellness perspective, not an illness perspective. People with a military background will reject the concept of “sickness” and “brokenness” because, to them, that’s equal to weakness. If someone approaches a service member, veteran or military family member with pity, as if they’re a broken-winged bird, there will probably be a bit of a confrontation.

I know, because I’m a member of this community.

Who am I?

I retired from the U.S. Army in 2014 after a 22-year career. After retiring, I took on a new mission to help my brothers and sisters in arms, and their families, adjust to the circumstances that put some of those dents in their fenders. After several years of clinical work, I realized that my lived experience combined with my clinical background could help others. Which is where this column comes in.

Over the coming months, I’ll be sharing some of my insights about the culture and character of the military. Even though the need is great, the counseling profession doesn’t include a lot of people like me — former service members who have become professional counselors. As a matter of fact, that is what brought me to the profession — a chance encounter at just the right time and someone saying exactly the right thing to someone who was open to hearing it.

I was not a mental health professional when I was in the Army. I was in logistics, which is the Army’s euphemistic way of describing supply and transportation. In 2007, knowing that I would eventually have to leave the military, I started going back to school while I was deployed to Iraq. I was looking for a degree with the least amount of math possible and came across an associate degree in counseling and applied psychology. I thought that might make me a better leader, and I was interested in psychology, so I figured why not?

Fast-forward nearly a year. My unit was redeploying from Iraq after 15 months, and we were participating in post-deployment reintegration sessions. We all went to a conference center at a local hotel, where we were presented with breakout sessions on not going too wild with our drinking, not being mean to the neighbors … that kind of thing.

One of the breakout sessions was led by a counselor from the local Vet Center. For those of you not familiar with Vet Centers, they are outpatient mental health clinics that are part of the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) but separate from the main VA health care system. The counselors at the Vet Centers are typically veterans themselves, as was the case with this clinician. She introduced herself and said that she was a retired Air Force officer. I don’t remember much of what she talked about that day, but something she said struck me then and stays with me now: “By the way, if any of you are interested in psychology, consider a career in the mental health industry. There are not enough combat veterans in our field.”

That’s all it took. Up until that point, I had not considered becoming a mental health counselor. After that, I started on the path that I’m on now and, with the help of many mentors along the way, currently work as a counselor at a private outpatient clinic in Colorado Springs, Colorado, that primarily serves the military population.

What the counselor said that day was correct then, and it still holds true now: There are not enough veterans in the counseling career field serving others in the military population. At the same time, that truth does not minimize the need for mental health counseling for the military population. There are two solutions to this: Bring more veterans into the counseling profession, and help those clinicians in the counseling profession who are not veterans to understand more about the unique needs of the military population.

As professional counselors, we recognize the need to be culturally competent with whatever client populations we work. We can’t work with someone from another culture without knowing about that culture; the ACA Code of Ethics clearly identifies this.

In that sense, the military population is an entirely different culture. Anything that defines the characteristics of a culture — ways of dressing, language, conceptualization of the world — applies to the military. I often describe it this way: It’s as if I went to England to live for 22 years and then moved back to the United States. Sure we spoke the same general language in those two countries, but there were also significant cultural differences between them and, therefore, adjustments that I needed to make. That’s how service members and their families feel after military service.

So, the goals of this column will be:

  • To provide insights into the culture of military-affiliated clients
  • To support counselors who find themselves working with service members, veterans and their families
  • To answer questions (if you have any, feel free to drop me a line at duane@veteranmentalhealth.com)

Thank you for your willingness to serve the military-affiliated population and for your willingness to learn more. Your efforts are greatly appreciated

 

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Duane France, LPC

Duane France is a retired U.S. Army noncommissioned officer and combat veteran who practices as a licensed professional counselor in Colorado Springs, Colorado. He is the director of veteran service for the Family Care Center, a private outpatient mental health clinic specializing in service members, veterans and their families. He is also the executive director of the Colorado Veterans Health and Wellness Agency, a 501(c)3 nonprofit that is professionally affiliated with the Family Care Center. In addition to his clinical work, he writes and speaks about veteran mental health on his blog and podcast at veteranmentalhealth.com. Contact him at duane@veteranmentalhealth.com.

 

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

Hooah! Thoughts and musings on Operation Immersion

By Janet Fain Morgan January 3, 2017

Hooah: Military slang referring to or meaning “anything and everything except ‘no.’” Used predominantly by soldiers in the U.S. Army.

 

My father was in the U.S. Army for more than 30 years. I grew up as a military dependent, relocating every few years (and attending more than 20 schools) until I graduated high school. I joined the Army Reserve, later married my husband, a U.S. Navy submariner, and he eventually ended up retiring from the Army after 20 years. My eldest son joined the Army out of college and is currently on active duty.

I have been a licensed professional counselor in Augusta, Georgia; Bamberg, Germany; Lakewood, Washington; Fort Knox, Kentucky; Columbus, Georgia; and most recently, Somerset, Kentucky. As a member of the American Counseling Association and the Military and Government Counseling Association (a division of ACA), I am concerned about the rising number of suicides among our military veterans. On a related note, I am also concerned by the limited number of education and training opportunities available to counselors who are dedicated to the specific needs of military clients.

This past year, the Kentucky Counseling Association (KCA), a state branch of ACA, advertised a training program for counselors called Kentucky Operation Immersion. The program offered an immersion experience into military culture that aimed to help counselors become aware of the unique culture and specific needs of military clients. The training educated counselors on how better to help soldiers as they transition back from wartime environments overseas and reintegrate into a civilian society.

Only about 1 percent of the U.S. population actually serves in the military. Many people do not understand the difference between the military mindset and the civilian frame of mind. For that reason, I was impressed and excited to see that KCA was addressing a very important topic that can make a difference to our military members.

As a counseling professional and former soldier, I jumped at the opportunity to train with the Army National Guard at the Wendell H. Ford Regional Training Center. The Kentucky Department for Behavioral Health, Developmental and Intellectual Disabilities (DBHDID) and the Kentucky Army National Guard presented and sponsored the training, and many of their respective department members joined in the training. I had no idea what I had signed up for, but sometimes ignorance is bliss.

I arrived to join approximately 30 other participants from a variety of specialties, including drug and alcohol counselors, psychologists, school counselors and Kentucky Department of Veterans Affairs employees. The participants ranged in age from their 20s to their 70s.

Day One: Basic training

On the first day — basic training — we were introduced to the training leaders, department heads and Army National Guard soldiers who would mentor us throughout the training. We were issued our field equipment, including Kevlar helmets and flak jackets, which we would wear during our training for the next three days. Removing the metal plates that are normally part of the bulletproof garment decreased the flak jacket’s weight. Even so, the jacket was still heavy and served as a constant reminder of what soldiers wear to protect themselves during deployment.

Our first training exercise was an introduction to platoon formation and marching, but this version was much kinder than what I had experienced in my Army basic training days. Regardless, I found myself unable to maintain the pace of the platoon. This bruised my ego and provided a gentle indicator of the physical limitations I might encounter in the training exercises to come. And come they did …

The author, second from right in the back row, with fellow members of her Operation Immersion training squad.

The Field Leadership Reaction Course was a team-building exercise (obstacle course) that further introduced me to my counselor peers. We had fun coordinating our navigation of the ropes, walls and boards to achieve successful outcomes. Then Kentucky weather intervened, and we headed for shelter from tornadoes, storms and heavy rains. Chow took place in the mess hall with service members who invited us to ask them questions about the military and their military experience.

That evening we met Bobby Henline, an American hero, comedian and motivational speaker who served four tours of duty in Iraq. During his fourth tour, he was the sole survivor of a roadside bombing that left a third of his body burned. He shared his survival story and his outsize sense of humor with us. Bobby participated with us throughout the training and was an inspiration to us all. His humor helped lighten the serious moments, and his encouragement was invaluable. It was a true honor to meet him and a blessing to spend time with him.

Sleep was sweet after such a full first day.

Day One counseling takeaway: Military training is demanding physically and challenging mentally. Build relationships with military clients by asking about their training and work environments. Ask questions about any military-specific acronyms that they use. Many people know what an MRE (meal ready to eat) is, but fewer are familiar with what FOB (forward operations base) or TOC (tactical operations center) represent. Get to know these clients’ personal stories. This can shed light on what might be troubling them and why they are seeking counseling.

Day Two: Mobilization

Day Two arrived early — at 5 a.m. — and there we were, in formation, doing PT (physical training). Mobilization day started with breakfast in the chow hall, and then we had a class on sexual assault prevention. That morning we also heard personal stories of deployment from individual soldiers. Their stories spoke of bravery, tragedy, courage and, sometimes, boredom. All the stories touched our souls. In fact, when the program participants looked back over those days of classes, physical challenges and training, we decided the deployment stories were what we would remember most.

After a class on combat-related trauma, we headed to the SIM (Simulation) Center, where we ate MREs and enjoyed the virtual combat simulators in the forms of EST (Engagement Skills Training with Night Vision), IED (Improvised Explosive Device training instruction), HEAT (Humvee Egress Awareness Training Simulator) and CSF2 (Comprehensive Soldier and Family Fitness).

That evening, we were briefed by the commander, Capt. Michael Moynahan, and heard another personal deployment story from Maj. Amy Sutter, a licensed clinical social worker. Her mental health perspective on deployment was invaluable, and we also gained insight on deployment from a female viewpoint.

Day Two counseling takeaway: Deployment is rough, both mentally and physically. The living arrangements are complex, and soldiers have many challenges related to isolation and loneliness. At the same time, privacy is often limited. Build the therapeutic relationship by asking your military clients about any and all deployments. Each deployment offers military members challenges and unique perspectives. These could be explored through open-ended questions about their personal experiences. Be aware that some of these clients have seen or done things that they do not want to disclose or remember.

Day Three: Deployment

Deployment day again came early, with PT that included a warmup and running track. Classwork began with a briefing on substance abuse, posttraumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury. After listening to a suicide prevention panel, we headed out on a bus to the Gwynn City MOUT (Military Operations on Urban Terrain) site for our deployment training.

The Army National Guard launched a few simulated IED attacks in the direction of our bus and also created a machine gun simulation to get us “in the mood” for our urban warfare exercises. Command Sgt. Maj. Matthew Roberge led the military demonstrations and the exercises to prepare us for clearing a building of enemy personnel. The smooth, precise and sharp Army National Guard soldiers modeled the intricate procedure for us, and in teams of four, we attempted to reproduce the action with our military-style paintball weapons.

Our attempt was a less than perfect assault, with paintballs flying everywhere and Kentucky counselors doing their best to come out of the training exercise unscathed. That said, there was much laughter and excitement throughout, and everyone emerged feeling abundant respect for our U.S. military, and especially the group of professionals who worked with us during our training experience.

Dinner that evening was a relaxing outdoor cookout, during which we said goodbye to many of the soldiers who were leaving for their drill weekend. Awards were given, speeches were made and the treasured “challenge coins” — engraved with a unit’s or organization’s insignia or motto and given as a sign of respect — were secretly passed from palm to palm.

Day Three counseling takeaway: Military members face death often and rely on their training and peers to stay safe. Their training is precise and has to be executed perfectly every time, or the soldiers and their companions run the risk of becoming casualties. A high level of stress accompanies each operation, and sometimes that stress may last for days, weeks or even months, with little or no downtime for the soldier. The residual effects from this intense training and the soldier’s subsequent experiences can last a lifetime. Counselors should understand the deleterious effects of combat. Even if operations are carried out perfectly, casualties can occur, accidents can happen and the effects can be devastating.

Day Four: Demobilization

Demobilization day was early to rise — 4:50 a.m. — so we could clean the barracks, pack our bags and return the gear. Breakfast was quick, but then our first speaker arrived to awaken our senses. Capt. Phil Majcher spoke about his role as battalion chaplain and the duties that were part of the military chaplaincy. He didn’t sugarcoat anything, giving many of us moral points to ponder.

Linda Ringleka, military and national liaison from Lincoln Trail Behavioral Health System, joined Capt. Majcher. Together, they led a workshop on suicide prevention and ACE (Ask, Care, Escort) training. The counselors participated in small group activities that included role-plays and real-time suicide scenarios.

Sgt. Brooks, a female soldier, offered to speak with the female trainees about her experiences as a woman in the military with two deployments under her belt. Gathering together as women, we heard her personal story of courage, determination, struggling as a single mom and the challenges of being female in the Army. Her story was incredible and touched each of us. I must also mention that watching Sgt. Brooks throughout the entire training was like witnessing a master of all trades. She did everything that her male counterparts did, and with effortless perfection.

As we wrapped up the training, pictures were taken and awards were announced. Heath Dolen, DBHDID program administrator, presented each of us with a certificate, and a coveted challenge coin was passed secretly in a handshake.

As I drove home, I reflected on the immense amount of information and knowledge we had all gained as mental health professionals. This training was invaluable in providing us with skills to help soldiers as they return from difficult and sometimes horrific experiences. Many of these potential clients need to know that the counselors assisting them do actually understand some of the hardships they have endured. Counselors must gain the trust of hurting service members before many of them will disclose the horrors that they witnessed or even participated in during a deployment to a war zone.

The rules that we typically live by in our society do not always correspond to the experiences that soldiers see and live through. The camaraderie of this very tightknit community is exceptional, and counselors must understand the underlying military culture and gain the trust of these soldiers to be as effective as possible. Of that, I am certain.

I highly recommend that all mental health care professionals who take care of our soldiers undergo the type of training offered in Operation Immersion. Our heroes deserve the best that mental health professionals can give them, and this training definitely moved us in that direction.

 

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Janet Fain Morgan is a military family life counselor licensed in Kentucky and Georgia. She is a faculty member of William Glasser International and a member of the Military and Government Counseling Association, a division of ACA. She is also a former soldier. Contact her at JMFainMorgan@gmail.com.

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org

Counseling Today reviews unsolicited articles written by American Counseling Association members. To access writing guidelines and tips for having your article accepted for publication, go to ct.counseling.org/feedback

 

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

Suicide statistics highlight veteran population’s acute need for counseling, inside and outside of the VA

By Bethany Bray September 12, 2016

The rate of veteran deaths by suicide increased 32 percent between 2001 and 2014, according to a recent report by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). When compared with the U.S. civilian population, veterans have a 21 percent higher risk of dying by suicide.

The VA is calling the report, released in August, its most comprehensive analysis of rates of veteran suicides. The agency compiled data from more than 55 million veterans records from 1979 to 2014 from every U.S. state.

Among the findings was that between 2001 and 2014, the rate of suicide deaths among U.S.

U.S. Navy photo by Seaman Clark Lane/defense.gov

U.S. Navy photo by Seaman Clark Lane/defense.gov

veterans who used VA services increased 8.8 percent, whereas the suicide rate among veterans who did not use VA services increased 38.6 percent during that time frame.

In 2014, an average of 20 veterans died by suicide each day; approximately six per day were users of Veterans Health Administration (VHA) services.

“The VA’s latest report on veteran suicide is the most comprehensive to date and should be a call to arms for everyone in our profession who works with this population,” says Jeff Hensley, a Navy veteran who is an American Counseling Association member and a licensed professional counselor (LPC) in Texas.

“The data clearly shows that getting help, helps,” continues Hensley, a leadership fellow with Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) and director of clinical and veteran services at Equest, a therapeutic riding program in North Texas. “Those veterans who seek care have a suicide rate significantly lower than those who get no care at all. However, the VA is stretched to capacity — and many of those veterans who need help the most are either not registered with the VA or ineligible due to their discharge status. This leaves a significant gap between those who need help and the resources available to provide it. As professional counselors, we can step in and meet this need. Whether we work in community agencies serving veterans or volunteer our time with nonprofits like Give An Hour, counselors are in a unique position to significantly lower this troubling statistic.”

Other key findings in the VA report include:

  • In 2014, veterans made up 8.5 percent of the U.S. adult population, yet they accounted for 18 percent of all deaths by suicide. In 2010, veterans composed 9.7 percent of the U.S. population and accounted for 20.2 percent of deaths by suicide.
  • In 2014, roughly 67 percent of all veteran deaths by suicide involved firearms.
  • Roughly 65 percent of veterans who died by suicide in 2014 were age 50 or older.
  • In 2014, rates of suicide were highest among veterans ages 18 to 29. Rates of suicide among veterans age 70 or older were lower than were rates of suicide for the civilian population in the same age group.

Overall, U.S. rates of suicide have increased by 24 percent during the past 15 years.

The rate of veteran suicide gained public attention in 2012, when the VA released a report saying that 22 American veterans died by suicide every day of the year. That number has decreased to 20 per day (in 2014) in this most recent report.

In response, the VA has beefed up support services, including the creation of a toll-free crisis hotline and expanding telemental health care programs.

However, these efforts don’t address one glaring omission: Professional counselors are often excluded from jobs at VA facilities. A 2006 law recognized “licensed professional mental health counselors” and “marriage and family therapists” as mental health providers within the VA health care system. However, 10 years later, few VA job postings include counselors as candidates to fill those positions, and even fewer licensed counselors are actually hired.

“It’s noteworthy that within the ‘nation’s largest analysis of veteran suicide,’ there is no mention of words such as ‘medication,’ ‘pharmaceuticals,’ ‘counselor’ or ‘counseling,’” says Natosha Monroe, an Army veteran and Texas LPC who is a co-leader of ACA’s Veterans Interest Network. “I would be interested to know what exactly isn’t working in current treatment trends. I would love to see veterans have just as much access to nonpharmaceutical treatments such as professional counseling as they do VA psych meds.”

As Monroe recounts, “While working at the Pentagon [as an operations noncommissioned officer for comprehensive soldier fitness], I was literally told by a decision-maker that licensed professional counselors are not needed in the Army and that I should stop asking because that wasn’t going to change. I was told that ‘the current behavioral health providers are adequate.’ Well, the statistics say otherwise. I think it’s time to allow LPCs and licensed marriage and family therapists (LMFTs) to do our jobs. Our professions are the most specifically qualified to address the issues that troops and their families most often face: cognitive issues, transition issues and family challenges.

“It’s unfortunate that counselors and therapists are the only [mental health] professions completely excluded from every military branch,” Monroe says. “It’s frustrating that I am not allowed to be a behavioral health officer because I am a highly qualified LPC,” she continues. “Our professions are also the only ones blatantly discriminated against within the VA system despite Congress mandating our equal hiring — it still isn’t happening.”

“I’m not saying that correlation is causation, but I am definitely saying that veteran suicide rates are increasing, and there is persistent discrimination and exclusion of our profession,” Monroe concludes.

 

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Read the VA report in full here

 

Read a VA press release about the report here

 

Contact the Veterans Crisis Line or find out more at veteranscrisisline.net

 

Get involved with or find out more about ACA’s Veterans Interest Network here

 

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Bethany Bray is a staff writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at bbray@counseling.org

 

Follow Counseling Today on Twitter @ACA_CTonline and on Facebook at facebook.com/CounselingToday.

 

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

 

 

VA expands policy to allow service dogs

By Bethany Bray August 31, 2015

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has amended its policy to allow all types of trained service dogs in VA facilities, including canines that support people with mental health and emotional issues.

Previously, the only animals allowed in VA facilities were guide dogs, with few exceptions.

Keith Myers, an American Counseling Association member and licensed professional counselor ServiceDog(LPC) in Georgia who specializes in trauma and veteran’s issues, calls the change “a needed policy shift.”

“I witness firsthand the positive effects service dogs [have when] coming alongside a veteran,” he says. “Whether the dog is a calming influence for anxiety or a grounding presence for certain intrusive symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a service dog provides the veteran with a battle buddy, so to speak, that can help [in] many stressful environments. Unfortunately, these stressful environments can also include the local VA, such as a crowded waiting room or confusing parking deck. This policy change is long overdue at VA Medical Centers (VAMCs). I’m very happy with it, and I believe my clients with service dogs will also appreciate the change.”

The VA policy change takes effect this fall (September 2015). Now, any service dog, defined as “dogs that are individually trained to perform work or tasks on behalf of an individual with a disability,” will be allowed.

“Other animals will not be permitted in VA facilities, unless expressly allowed as an exception under the regulation for activities such as animal-assisted therapy or for other reasons such as law enforcement purposes,” the VA announced in a press release. “The regulation further confirms that service animals may access VA property subject to the same terms that govern the admission of the public to VA property, and may be restricted from certain areas on VA properties to ensure that patient care, patient safety and infection control standards are not compromised.”

Amy Stevens, an LPC who runs a Facebook group for female veterans in Georgia, thinks the policy change is good news, although its implementation remains to be seen.

“This is exciting news for many [service] women who have service dogs for emotional support as well as physical needs. The regulation is still not completely clear on how it will be implemented,” says Stevens, a service-disabled Navy veteran. “The question remains on how the service animal will be approved and what kind of documentation will be required to verify the training and roles in place. … Physical needs for injuries needing balance support or help with fetching and retrieving items can be readily apparent. The emotional needs of a veteran with PTSD are not so clear. The calming influence of a trained emotional support animal is very important, but it may not initially be clear what the ‘task’ might be. For example, when the veteran feels threatened or fearful, the task may be protective, such as the animal placing herself between the threat and the veteran. It does not mean barking or attacking the threat. The presence of the animal can also provide ‘grounding’ for a veteran who is mentally distressed by physical contact. Awareness of the animal … can help the veteran come back to herself and manage better. … We look forward to hearing more about this [policy change] in the near future as implementation begins.”

Stevens, a Cold War-era veteran, previously served as director of psychological health for the Georgia National Guard. She and Myers are both members of the American Counseling Association’s Veterans Interest Network.

 

 

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Related reading

 

See the VA’s original press release here: 1.usa.gov/1JyIivj

 

Coverage by Military Times: “VA amends access rules for service dogs at facilities

 

For more information on a counselor’s role in certifying emotional support animals, see Counseling Today’s online exclusive: “Confirming the benefits of emotional support animals

 

 

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Bethany Bray is a staff writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at bbray@counseling.org

 

Follow Counseling Today on Twitter @ACA_CTonline and on Facebook: facebook.com/CounselingToday

A first step toward stemming veteran suicide

By Bethany Bray February 11, 2015

A bill aimed at improving suicide prevention and mental health services for veterans has sailed through both houses of Congress this winter.

President Barack Obama signed the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act (also veteranflagcamoknown as the Clay Hunt SAV Act) into law on Thursday, Feb. 12.

The bill, named for a Marine sniper who died by suicide in 2011, calls for an audit of all mental health and suicide prevention practices and programs at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).

“Today, we honor a young man who isn’t here, but should be,” President Obama said at Thursday’s bill signing. “Every single veteran in America has something extraordinary to give to this country. Every single one. … If you are hurting, know this: You are not forgotten. You are not alone. You are never alone. We are here for you.”

Although the bill is a good step, supporting and helping veterans ” is not just a job for government,” said Obama. “Every community, every American can reach out and do more for our veterans. This has to be a national mission.”

Passage of the bill is good news for the veteran community and a first step toward further improvements, says Jeff Hensley, a Navy veteran, American Counseling Association member and licensed professional counselor intern.

In 2012, the VA reported the eye-opening statistic that 22 American veterans die by suicide every day of the year.

“This seems so counterintuitive to those who are part of this [veterans] community, and very scary,” says Hensley, a program counselor at a therapeutic riding center in Wylie, Texas, who does equine-assisted therapy with veterans.

Veterans met the 2012 report with “shock, followed by indignation that we were allowing this to happen here in this country,” Hensley says. “That was the motivation [for the Clay Hunt bill].”

The legislation introduces several measures meant to improve veterans’ access to mental health care, including:

  • Evaluating all mental health care and suicide prevention practices and programs at the VA for the purpose of making recommendations to improve care
  • Requiring the VA to create a website to serve as a centralized source of information regarding all VA mental health services for veterans
  • Authorizing the VA to set up a student loan repayment pilot program to recruit and retain psychiatrists
  • Extending by one year the “combat eligibility” period that veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have to register for VA health care without having to first prove a service-related disability
  • Establishing a peer support and outreach pilot program to assist newly discharged service members with accessing VA mental health care services

 

“Getting help really does make a difference, and this legislation will encourage more veterans to get help,” says Hensley. “It will make a smoother transition for those going from active duty to civilian life – continued access to care, all the way.”

The Clay Hunt SAV Act is the culmination of an intense year of grassroots and lobbying work by the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), a nonprofit organization that represents post-9/11 veterans.

Hensley, an IAVA leadership fellow, came to Washington, D.C., last March to talk with legislators and campaign for the bill. He was part of an IAVA team that planted 1,892 American flags in the ground of the National Mall between the Washington Monument and the U.S. Capitol. Each flag represented a veteran who had committed suicide between January and March of that year.

A poignant image of the event, captured by a news photographer, shows Hensley having an emotional moment as he knelt among the flags. A retired Navy commander, Hensley was a fighter pilot who saw combat deployments in Iraq.

Thanks to the efforts of IAVA, the Clay Hunt SAV Act went from conception to the president’s desk in a little less than one year, says Hensley. Both houses of Congress passed the bill unanimously, an exceptional feat in an age known for partisan gridlock. It was passed by the House of Representatives in January and by the Senate on Feb. 3.

“It’s not a perfect bill, but it’s a foot in the door,” Hensley says. “It creates a national conversation about the problem. … It’s not a perfect piece of legislation, but it’s a very good start.”

When veterans come off of active duty, it is up to the individual to take the initiative to register with the VA. This can be a big obstacle for those who are hurting, according to Hensley.

It is estimated that less than half of post-9/11 veterans register with the VA, and it is impossible to know whether those who don’t register are getting mental health care outside of the VA or not at all, Hensley says.

“A lot of veterans fall off our radar,” he says.

Hensley sees the impact of this reality firsthand in his work with veterans at the therapeutic riding facility in Texas.

“Most of the [veterans] who are coming to us aren’t in the VA system. We may be the only help they’re getting,” he says. “I see it every day. If they reach out and get help, it can make a big difference. … From a counseling perspective, it’s hard to watch this population not get help, to be struggling. But because of stigma [surrounding mental illness], or limited access to care, or whatever reason, they don’t reach out.”

IAVA polls its members each year to collect data and find out what issues are most important to them. The Clay Hunt SAV Act was borne out of member survey data that indicated suicide prevention was a top priority.

(IAVA has 300,000 veteran and civilian members; the 2014 survey was taken by a little more than 2,000 of its veteran members.)

Last year, 40 percent of IAVA members who took the annual survey reported that they knew at least one veteran of the Iraq or Afghanistan campaigns who had committed suicide. Thirty-one percent of respondents said they had thought about taking their own life since joining the military.

Clay Hunt, a Purple Heart awardee who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, was seeking care from the VA for post-traumatic stress disorder before he committed suicide at age 28.

“While we are a little bittersweet, because it is too late for our son Clay, we are thankful knowing that this bill will save many lives,” said Susan Selke, as the bill named for her son was passed by the Senate last week. “No veteran should have to wait or go through bureaucratic red tape to get the mental health care they earned during their selfless service to our country. While this legislation is not a 100 percent solution, it is a huge step in the right direction.”

 

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For more information on IAVA and the Clay Hunt SAV Act, visit IAVA.org/SAVACT

 

More details and the full text of the bill is posted here: congress.gov/bill/113th-congress/house-bill/5059/text

 

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Bethany Bray is a staff writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at bbray@counseling.org

 

Follow Counseling Today on Twitter @ACA_CTonline and on Facebook: facebook.com/CounselingToday