By Stephen Spotswood
WASHINGTON — According to VA statistics, four out of 10 veterans with mental-health challenges seek assistance from clergy — more than all other types of mental-health providers combined.
Veteran advocates and researchers maintain, however, that VA has not done enough to partner with faith-based and community groups and that opportunities to support reintegration are being lost.
A recent survey of veterans by the Pew Research Center revealed that 27% of veterans reported that readjusting to civilian life was “somewhat difficult” or “very difficult.” The survey also reported significant burdens of military service, with 48% reporting strains in family relations, 47% frequently feeling irritable or angry and 37% reporting post-trauma symptoms.
Testifying before the House VA Committee at a hearing on VA and community organizations, David Rudd, PhD, director of the University of Utah’s National Center for Veterans Studies, noted that the same survey offers some insight into the source of those problems.
The Durham, NC, VAMC recently trained rural clergy from North Carolina and Virginia to counsel veterans returning from deployment to Iraq and Afghanistan. Source: Durham VAMC Facebook Page
“Among those having experienced combat, 50% or more report post-trauma symptoms and difficult family relations,” Rudd said. “When queried about factors reducing the probability for successful re-entry into civilian life, veterans identified traumatic experiences and injury as the most significant variable.”
The same survey offered insight into possible solutions, he noted. Surveyed veterans identified “attending church at least weekly” as the most important variable associated with an easier and successful re-entry into civilian life.
“A remarkable 67% identified attending church ‘once a week or more’ as making re-entry easier,” Rudd said. “Clearly, the social connection and support offered by religious institutions around the nation are essential for our veterans.”
Faith-based programs in the community — even something as simple as the church attended by the veteran — can help a veteran integrate in ways not available to VA.
“Veterans I have worked with would much rather go to local clergy than go to a clinical psychiatrist,” Rudd said. “And with the right training and right resources, that kind of partnership is exactly the kind that we should pursue.”
Partnership With Community Needed
Advocates working with veterans in the community report that VA is not actively pursuing those partnerships — at least not with great enough frequency.
Andy Davis, director of the Saratoga County Veterans Service Agency in New York, is former Army Ranger who did two tours in Afghanistan and one in Iraq and has been a veterans’ advocate since 2004. Testifying before the committee, Davis said that veterans are frequently forced to go through a VA middleman in order to get services and help with community issues that could be better provided by local agencies.
“The correct mindset for reaching veterans must transition to a no-wrong- door approach,” Davis said. “This can and should be created through localized, national training by VA, veterans’ advocates and other experts to all members of local communities. These newly created veteran-friendly communities would have the tools to make referrals to the proper resources, whether a veteran walks into a rectory, a tax assessor’s office or is pulled over during a traffic stop.”
VA focuses so much on hot-button trauma issues that it loses sight of more overwhelming needs that veterans have in a community, explained Chaplain John Morris of the Minnesota National Guard.
“VA suffers under the perception of being an isolated institution, and it has a stigma — from the loss of laptops to compromises of our security to homeless veterans who commit suicide. It really affects the community’s view of VA,” Morris said. “And that institutionalism in VA is a problem, and it keeps VA inside its building and not in the community sharing its knowledge with us.
“I think, unfortunately, this steady mantra about PTSD [rates at] 25% [creates] an impression that VA is the only institution that can solve combat trauma, and that all veterans have it,” he said.
In his experience in Minnesota, however, lack of mental healthcare is not a problem.
“Minnesota is the land of 10,000 chemical and mental-health treatment centers. We like it say it’s 10,000 lakes, but it’s treatment centers,” Morris said. “Plenty of people want to help us with mental health. That’s not our biggest problem. And we’re caught in a loop between VA and Congress trumpeting a problem, when the bigger problem is underfunded and under-addressed — and that’s the double-digit unemployment rate among veterans.”
If VA were better at communicating with community organizations, they would have a better sense of what veterans in various communities actually needed, rather than assuming that a single solution will apply nationally, Morris said.
He cited having some success in partnering with VA on these issues in Minnesota, with training of local clergy, as well as National Guard chaplains and chaplain candidates, in clinical pastoral education. VA also has provided training for marriage and family therapists, as well as licensed social workers.
According to VA, 233 such training events have been held around the country — usually near VA medical centers — where faith-based and community advocates have been taught to identify readjustment challenges that veterans and their families face, including the psychological and spiritual effects of trauma. Local clergy also has been educated on understanding what PTSD and TBI are and to recognize symptoms among veterans who come to them.
For Morris, this is a good start, but it is only a start. “VA needs to recognize that it’s just one part of the reintegration process, and it’s not the most important part,” he said. “The community is the most important part.”
Most people looking at a hospital room will see an environment specifically designed to keep human beings alive through even the most traumatic circumstances.
A facility-specific survey found that 138 of 140 VA facilities reported shortages of medical officers, with psychiatry and primary care positions being the most frequently listed.