Veterans: Where to Start?

Over and over we hear about how the returning Veteran is suffering from trauma, physical disabilities, anxiety, and so on. There is an abundance of information supporting the fact that Veterans face a higher incidence of divorce, drug use, and suicide. This has prompted significant focus on access to mental health for Veterans. When we think of these issues, what comes to mind? It is easy to jump to PTSD, anxiety, and other mental illness. So, at first, it was agreed:

We Start There!

Let's back up a second, though. While these are significant issues which we absolutely need to address, it is becoming more apparent in my work and in the world of research that this may not be the place to start.

 

“When I was in, it was easy. I had two jobs: Do as I was told and Stay undead”

“Civilians are crazy”

“Nobody makes any sense”

“When I was told what to do, we did it… at that moment. My civilian co-workers don’t do that”

“They think I am bossy when I am just trying to get everyone together and working. When I was in, I gave orders all the time and we got it done.”

“My family is so hard to talk to because they don’t get it”

“I offend people and don’t know why”

 

These statements represent what I hear in counseling sessions with Veterans. This is not someone talking about flashbacks, hyper-vigilance, nightmares, fear of going outside, or Depression. One, if not more, of those symptoms are usually present, but those are actually not always the issues for which these Veterans are seeking help. Whether these symptoms are managed or not, it is the struggle they described in the above statements which they need help with most. What they are describing is a struggle with

Successful Reintegration.

Among other things, this is the ability to resume prior social roles, connect and become part of their community, engage in leisure activities, and find meaning or purpose in civilian life. 

Remember before when we said:

We Start There!”?

We may have gotten this wrong for many of our returning Veterans. They are coming into counseling sessions expressing frustration about the basic issues civilians naturally understand since they have never been separated from this civilian society. Yes, these other mental health related issues may impact reintegration but one does not automatically have PTSD or other mental health issues just because they served. Reintegration does not only effect those who have been deployed to conflict areas. Living in the culture of the military alone makes reintegration difficult. Addressing the major mental health issues may not be possible if some basic readjustment can’t occur. Let’s listen to the experiences that these Veterans are reporting and help them start by addressing basic needs.

In a recent training with trauma expert, Bessel van der Kolk, M.D., he astutely pointed out that the Veteran doesn’t always need to learn to manage their trauma; sometimes they just need to learn how to manage dealing with people in a grocery store. If the perception “Civilians are Crazy”  is accurate to a Veteran’s reality, then, in a grocery store, we have just asked him/her to spend significant time in close quarters with “crazy” on a regular basis and survive it.

So how do we better meet the needs of these men and women? How do we break down resistance to engaging in work aimed at giving them the relaxed and enjoyable life they deserve and protected for the rest of us? It may be we move from the clinical to the practical. We acknowledge and understand:

  • the intensive training they completed to build protective factors meant for a war zone- so they can come home and protect home
  • the highly structured, black and white world within which they lived versus the gray world which runs on unspoken rules beyond laws, and the struggles of then returning to gray world living once again
  • that navigating social situations and making interpersonal connections outside the tribe are not skills which offer protection in a time of war. They can, at times, become a risk instead.
  • that if they learned and did well, then they had to suppress and, potentially, forget the rest.

Let’s remove the stigma of mental illness from the counseling session and replace it with skill building and redirecting one’s strengths, which have now become barriers.

Fortunately, our community does not have a deficit of resources. The Mountain Resource Center maintains a Veteran’s Support Services Program offering a variety of services which include job searching, emergency services, and funding for counseling (not just counseling for mental illness). For further information, you can contact them at (303)838-7552.

Additionally, Park County has a very involved and informed Veterans Support Officer who can be reached at (303) 816-9498.

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Written by: Alison Atkins

Learn more about Alison here!