Saturday, June 27, 2009

U.S. military works to educate soldiers about mental health issues

From The Gazette in Colorado Springs:

In recent years, the military has invested millions of dollars in mental health care, fueling a proliferation of treatment programs while attempting to reshape fundamental attitudes about mental illness.

But the stigma persists among the rank-and-file, keeping many troubled soldiers from taking advantage of help that is readily available, according to two Army generals.

The Army's top psychiatrist, Brig. Gen. Loree K. Sutton, and Fort Carson commander Maj. Gen. Mark A. Graham spoke with reporters, civilian health care providers and others Wednesday as part of an Army-sponsored Warrior Care Summit in Colorado Springs.

A 2007 scandal at Walter Reed Army Medical Center that revealed widespread medical neglect, coupled with a rash of soldier suicides and homicides, has led to major strides in how the military approaches health care.

Sutton described the Walter Reed revelation as a tragic "blessing."

"We're really good at the life-saving, white-knuckled, adrenaline-charged stuff," she said about the military's medical team.

But until recently, the military fell short when it came to taking care of soldiers coming off the battlefield or in need of longtime rehab.

This "cultural transformation," Sutton said, has changed medical protocols to place a greater focus on the "whole" soldier. Mental health, she said, is now taken as seriously as physical health. Her job title might serve as an example. She is the founding director of the Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury, a Defense Department organization charged exclusively with addressing the psychological needs of the military.

The changes aren't just at the top. Platoon leaders and medics, for example, are being trained to recognize signs of stress among their troops and to help those soldiers get help.

Army doctors and counselors have honed their questions to better identify conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries. Fort Carson recently opened a center designed solely to help soldiers with traumatic brain injuries.

Yet such efforts are hampered by a tough-guy culture where words such as "stress" and "mental health" make people bristle. Graham said soldiers fear that if they seek psychological help, it might be seen as a sign of weakness and could jeopardize promotions or admission into selective programs.

Graham is a vocal advocate in addressing those stigmas. One of his two sons committed suicide, and the other died in combat in Iraq. And at Fort Carson, 14 soldiers were accused or convicted of homicides from 2005-08, he said.

"We take it very hard when a soldier goes downtown and does something horrific," he said. The question, he said: "How do we see that red flag?"

One of Sutton's strategies is a new $1.8 million public awareness campaign built largely on telling the stories of soldiers who sought help.