Dole VA Will Treat More PTSD Cases
BY BECCY TANNER
The Wichita Eagle
So many veterans are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder that the veterans medical center in Wichita is expanding its mental health department.
The Robert J. Dole Veterans Affairs Medical Center is spending $495,000 to design and build a 2,900-square-foot addition to its mental health department.
The center is also increasing its mental health staff from 23 to 39. The expansion is to be completed by June.
Nationally, the VA estimates that about 30,000 U.S. troops have sustained physical injuries from Iraq and Afghanistan, but many more have psychological wounds.
Of the 1.7 million troops who have been sent to war zones since 2002, up to a third may suffer mental health problems.
Jeremy Crosby, clinical psychologist at the Dole VA center, said untreated PTSD victims are more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol, abuse their families, lose their jobs, end up homeless or commit suicide. They also are less likely to interact with society.
"Our clientele has increased 15 to 20 percent in the last two years," he said. "We are averaging 15 to 20 new veterans every month."
Unlike Vietnam-era war veterans, Crosby said, the new veterans have fought in urban environments and come home to urban culture. They can experience panic attacks simply by being on streets or near buildings.
"The biggest challenge is to get patients to believe they need to actually come here in the first place," Crosby said. "When your life is threatened, the most normal thing to do is to survive. In their mind, that's normal. So, how can that result in a disorder? But family and co-workers are the ones who notice big changes. they see the personality has changed."
Some of the symptoms of PTSD are:
• Outbursts of anger; over-reacting to small details or things that seem insignificant
• An inability to relax, even in the safest situations
If PTSD goes untreated, it can build.
"Even with the numbers of the new veterans, along with that, we have the veterans from World War II, Korea and Vietnam seeing things on the news that's bringing up their own trauma," Crosby said. "Their trauma happened 40 to 50 years ago and they never dealt with it."
But once the veterans come in and talk about their PTSD, over time, the symptoms begin to ease.
"A lot of them will say, 'I wish I had come sooner.' Their treatment becomes high priority," Crosby said.
Before Sept. 11, 2001, Wichita VA officials saw nearly 17,000 veterans from more than half the state of Kansas. They expected the numbers to dip as World War II, Korean and Vietnam-era veterans died.
Instead, the numbers have nearly doubled. In 2008, they expect to serve 30,400 veterans.
Duane Jaeger, director of behavioral health at the Wichita VA center, said the center has been building its front-line staff in behavioral health since 2004. That year, the center's mental health clinic saw 3,800 clients. Last year, it saw 5,000.
To help attract new veterans, Jaeger said staff members go to post-deployment gatherings and let soldiers know what the VA can offer for mental, physical and dental care.
"We encourage any veteran, any military person to come to the VA and talk to us about eligibility, even if they didn't serve during a conflict. It can be during any time period," Jaeger said. "It is to their benefit to explore and see that the VA is a very different place than it used to be."
Still, some veterans say more could be done.
Along with veterans in other states, the 48-year-old is working to get Congress to approve the funding. The national movement has included celebrities such as Bill Cosby and Willie Nelson, both veterans.