WASHINGTON– Behavioral health issues affecting veterans returning from deployment took center stage yesterday during the first day of a three-day conference in Bethesda, Md.

In collaboration with the departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration is hosting “Paving the Road Home: The National Behavioral Health Conference and Policy Academy on Returning Veterans and Their Families.”

“This … conference and policy academy is really designed, overall, to help states and territories and the District of Columbia think about new approaches, particularly approaches that blend expertise and resources from multiple contributors,” said Kathryn Power, director of SAMHSA’s Center for Mental Health Services. “It’s going to provide framework to consider different approaches, dialogue with colleagues, and work toward a unified plan that they can take to their states to ensure that veterans have the [mental health] services they need and want.”

SAMHSA’s deputy administrator challenged conference attendees to work together beyond the conference to make that happen.

“Whether we’re from the federal government, whether from state [or] local government, the research community or wherever you come from today … look for ways that we can address the needs that those men and women return with,” said Navy Rear Adm. Eric Broderick. “Whether we’re from SAMHSA, or the VA, or DoD, we each have a role to play in addressing those needs.”

For the director of the Defense Center of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury, the effort to tap any and all best practices for treating veterans returning with behavioral issues officially began in June.

That’s when ground was broken for the new National Intrepid Center of Excellence on the grounds of the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, said Army Brig. Gen. (Dr.) Loree Sutton. The Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund will design and build the facility dedicated to research, diagnosis and treatment of military personnel and veterans suffering from traumatic brain injury and psychological health issues, according to the center’s Web site. The fund, a nonprofit organization supporting the nation’s troops and their families, is scheduled to complete construction in late 2009 and will transfer the center to the Defense Department then.

“We’ve come up with a ‘center of centers’ concept because we’ve realized that none of us have all of the answers,” Sutton said. “We brought in four existing centers that have been doing great work for a long time.”

The centers Sutton cited as part of National Intrepid Center of Excellence are the Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center, the Center for Deployment Psychology, the Deployment Health Clinical Center and the Center for the Study of Traumatic Stress.

Providing the resources is not enough, however, said Ellen Embrey, deputy assistant secretary of defense for force health protection and readiness. Servicemembers often are hesitant to seek help for behavioral or mental health issues, she said.

The stigma associated with seeking or receiving mental health care is nearly impossible to quantify, Embrey noted. “That’s why I personally appreciate the expertise and counsel as you formulate better mental care policies, particularly to reduce stigma,” she said.

That is the key to encouraging returning veterans to seek the help they may need, former Marine Sgt. Dan Taslitz said. The stigma of seeking help for a mental health issue stems from the thought that those types of problems indicate a lack of strength, something with which servicemembers very strongly identify, he explained.

“Stigma is a huge component in the inability for servicemembers to effectively seek support and care,” Taslitz said. “It doesn’t matter how good your opportunities are, how effective your integration of community and military and Veterans Affairs programs are if you don’t … [open] the door for participation in a way that men and women will walk through, it’s not going to work.”

Taslitz is currently with ONE Freedom, a nonprofit organization providing information to combat veterans and their families.

Yesterday’s conference included seven concurrent breakout sessions dealing with everything from suicide prevention and meeting the needs of military families and children to addressing mental health and substance abuse in returning veterans and their families.

The policy academy portion of the conference, which began today, will continue tomorrow with financing and benefit structures, setting priorities and integrating best practices among the topics to be covered. Strategies for handling mental health issues among veterans and their families will be developed, and participating state entities will exchange information and ideas they’ve put into practice.

Up Next

New Air Force Leaders Pledge to ‘Reinvigorate’ Service

WASHINGTON– Behavioral health issues affecting veterans returning from deployment took center stage yesterday during…