Servicemembers and Veterans Use Programs to Help Each Other Overcome Stigma

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WASHINGTON, DC—Veterans and servicemembers may be able to help each other overcome stigma in seeking psychological help, officials said during a webinar on combating stigma in the military hosted by the Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury (DCoE).

John Greden, MD, executive director for the University of Michigan Comprehensive Depression Center and chair for National Network of Depression Centers, said that Michigan Army National Guard is using what is called the Buddy-to-Buddy Volunteer Veteran program to help servicemembers who have returned from combat overcome stigma in seeking help. The program was developed by a team of military service members, veterans, veteran advocates, and healthcare professionals from the University of Michigan and Michigan State University.

Surveys suggest that while many returning veterans need behavioral health- care, many are reluctant to actually seek it because they fear it will be on their military records or that they will be treated differently by unit leadership.

The Michigan Army National Guard uses the Buddy-to-Buddy Volunteer program to train veterans to serve as peer support for other veterans. The idea behind it is to use the military culture that emphasizes helping one another and “soldiers take care of their own” to change a culture in which stigma is attached to seeking mental healthcare.

There are about 500 “buddy ones” that have been trained so far in the program. These buddies do not act as therapists, but are trained to find resources for returning servicemembers and to recognize the signs that suggest the need for evaluation. These become buddies who are there to help with reintegration— physical, social, emotional— jobs even. It has [created]opportunities to gain exposure [for returning servicemembers] to ‘howare you doing, now that you are back home?’” noted Greden.

Those serving in the guard and reserve need special attention when it comes to behavioral health, Greden stated. They are challenged in that that they do not return from deployment to a military post, and may not have the support of peers when they return, since they are dispersed. About 35% to 40% of the more than two million troops that have been deployed in the current conflict are guard and reserve.

He added that a national Buddy-to-Buddy program could benefit all returning veterans. “Changing culture by using culture is a strategy that seems to have true validity and I think we need more of it, probably a national program and we can be helped in this effort by having trusted voices that we enlist and they are eager to help.”

The program is part of the Welcome Back Veterans Initiative sponsored by Major League Baseball Charities and the McCormick Foundation. More information on the program can be found at http://www.buddytobuddy.org/

Reaching Servicemembers

USM_12-10-stress2.jpgAnother campaign highlighted to help reduce stigma is the Real Warriors Campaign that was launched in 2009. Among the components of the media campaign are profiles spotlighting the stories of servicemembers who successfully sought psychological help, explained Dana Stirk, deputy program manager. “These profiles are of servicemembers, veterans, and families who have come forward to share their stories of seeking treatment, or reaching out for support so they can demonstrate to their fellow servicemembers that reaching out makes a difference.”

Stirk said that the idea for the profiles came from the fact that while many servicemembers have heard messages from DoD that it is okay to seek help, research conducted prior to the campaign found that servicemembers wanted to see personal examples of their peers seeking help and at the same time having successful military or civilian careers.

Profiles of servicemembers and PSAs are available for download and viewing by visiting the campaign’s Web site’s Multimedia page at http://realwarriors.net/multimedia.

The campaign also includes articles on the website on a variety of topics related to resilience, recovery, and integration. In addition, the website includes a live chat in which users can connect with a trained health resource consultant for guidance.

Stirk said that the goals of the campaign are to create awareness about the resources available for psychological healthcare among servicemembers, their families, their commanders, and the public at large; to create understanding regarding the obstacles which servicemembers feel prevent them from seeking treatment; and to create investment on the part of military leadership in the concepts of resilience and early intervention, as well as the roles they play in successful treatment, recovery, and reintegration for returning servicemembers and overall force readiness.

Thomas Gaskin, PhD, program manager for the USMC Combat Operational Stress Control and Readiness, spoke of efforts within the Marine Corps to address stigma.

The Marine Corps uses the COSC Continuum that it created in order to increase awareness among Marines and leaders about how stress works and how they should handle it. The continuum uses colors to characterize different levels of stress.

With the tool, both leaders and Marines can assess where a Marine is at any given time on the stress continuum. The continuum includes symptoms to look for so that the leader can determine whether the marine is in the “green,” “yellow”, “orange”, or “red zone.” A servicemember that is in the “orange” or “red” zone is someone whom they need to refer for help.

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