Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Warrior Combat Stress Reset Center helps veterans with their mental health needs

From The Dallas Morning News:

Two summers ago, Alexander Onzures was an Army medic assigned to a bomb removal squad in Afghanistan. The mission was to clear roads of improvised explosive devices.

"We had a saying," says Onzures, 24. "Sometimes we find them, and sometimes they find us."

Onzures was in Afghanistan only a month when an IED found his team. The explosion killed one soldier and wounded four others, including Onzures. Temporarily blinded, his back severely injured, he spent months recovering from his injuries.

In the meantime, four friends he'd lived with in Afghanistan were killed by another roadside bomb. By the time Onzures returned to Fort Hood, Texas, he was dealing with full-blown, untreated post-traumatic stress disorder.

"I was very withdrawn," he says. "If I was at work, then I was in a corner by myself. If I was at home, I was in my room, doors locked, lights off."

He tried to numb his physical and emotional pain, taking a daily dose of painkillers prescribed for his back and drinking half a bottle of Jack Daniels every night. Finally, a friend and fellow soldier suggested he enroll in a special program for soldiers with PTSD called Warrior Combat Stress Reset Center.

"He knew I was hurting," Onzures says. "He was a very good friend."

Opened in August 2008, the three-week program focuses on one of the core problems of PTSD – hyper-arousal, a state of mind that feels like a "stuck fire alarm," in which every situation seems to pose a threat, says Jerry Wesch, a clinical psychologist with the Fort Hood program. Hyper-arousal leads to avoidance behavior and social isolation, he says. Treatment combines traditional and alternative therapies, including counseling, biofeedback, breathing exercises, yoga and acupuncture.

Onzures' case had a positive outcome. But the military still says it falls short of meeting the mental health needs of all active-duty soldiers and veterans who need help.

Even Fort Hood, the country's largest base with 50,000 soldiers, is scrambling to meet the demand for services. Though Fort Hood offers a broad range of mental health services, it still must rely on local hospitals in Central Texas, such as Scott & White Healthcare, as well as independent therapists, to meet the needs of its military community, which includes more than 100,000 family members.

"We are not able to serve the entire population. So we are relying on our partners in the community to help provide some of that care," says Dr. Adam Borah, chief of Fort Hood's Resiliency and Restoration Center, which provides on-base outpatient mental health services. "We're lucky we have a relatively speaking robust network of community providers we can rely upon."

Nearly 20 percent of all combat veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars – about 360,000 in all – report symptoms of PTSD and depression. Yet only a little over half of those have sought treatment, according to a study by Rand Corp. Many cite the stigma attached to mental illness for not seeking treatment, saying that doing so might harm their careers.

At Fort Hood, the number of soldiers diagnosed with PTSD has more than doubled – from 1,006 in 2007 to 2,390 through May of this year, according to the Carl R. Darnall Army Medical Center. In recent years, Fort Hood has hired more therapists to try to meet the demands for mental health services and make it easier for soldiers to find help. In January 2007, the Resiliency and Restoration Center had about 80 mental health specialists. As of July 2010, that number had doubled to 161 A year ago, Fort Hood opened a new resiliency center, a one-stop wellness hub. The sprawling campus houses a gym and meeting rooms with a choice of services, including licensed mental health therapists, chaplains, massage and acupuncture.

Increasing numbers of war veterans are leaving active-duty service and returning to their communities. There are 12,038 Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans enrolled in the VA North Texas Health Care System. Various programs, both public and private, are reaching out to them and others who are not yet in the system.

The local VA recently expanded services for recent combat veterans. New community-based clinics have opened in Mesquite, Arlington, Fort Worth and Far North Dallas to supplement services offered by the Dallas VA Medical Center in southeast Dallas.

The VA also has begun offering special classes for spouses and other family members. "When you're dealing with readjustment issues, the role of the family has unfortunately been downplayed in the past," says Michael Heninger, a licensed clinical social worker at the Vet Center in Arlington.

"We are here for families of war-zone veterans," offering classes and services at no cost, Heninger says. "They've already paid the price."