Joining forces to heal the invisible wounds of war

by John Oldham, MD, MS on January 17, 2012 · 4 comments



Returning military deserve the best mental healthcare available.

With the war in Iraq over, our troops are returning home to their families and communities and attempting to re-integrate themselves into civilian life. It is not an easy task, especially for the increasing number of military with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), traumatic brain injury and combat-related depression.

Many appear to be fine physically, but inside, their brains suffer the marks of war. Returning military with PTSD or combat-related depression find themselves quick to anger and at the mercy of their unpredictable moods, or lacking the energy or will to go about daily life. Those with mild to moderate traumatic brain injury, which often goes undiagnosed, may be at a loss for what’s wrong with them. They can’t concentrate or do the tasks required at work or at home. They just know something isn’t right.

Joining Forces

In January, as president of the American Psychiatric Association, I joined leaders of several national healthcare organizations along with the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs at the White House launch of Joining Forces, an effort organized by First Lady Michelle Obama and Dr. Jill Biden to help returning military, particularly those with posttraumatic stress disorder, posttraumatic brain injury (TBI) and combat-related depression. Joining Forces has a three-part goal:

  1. educate the public about PTSD, TBI and combat-related depression;
  2. improve access to healthcare when needed; and
  3. help returning servicemen and servicewomen find meaningful employment when they leave the military.

The stigma of mental illness and the culture of the military dissuade many members of the military from seeking the psychiatric help they so desperately need. An estimated 50 percent of returning military don’t get it. Access to quality psychiatric care for former military in the civilian world is also a challenge. I am proud to join our nation’s leaders, military and medical establishment to change that.

Joining Forces comes along at a crucial time for our country and military. Over the next four years, more than one million servicemen and women will be leaving the military—at one of the toughest economic periods in our country’s history. Many of our military are returning home with brain injuries because, thanks to amazing advances in medical technology, our troops are surviving their injuries in greater numbers instead of dying from them. For example, it used to take hours for those wounded in combat to go from the field to the operating room table. Now it takes an average of only 22 minutes—dramatically increasing survival rates for our troops.

While we are doing a vastly better job treating the bodies of our military, we have a long way to go in treating their minds.

On the home front

We are making progress on this front here at Menninger, following a long tradition of taking care of the military patient. In particular, Pam Greene, PhD, RN, a former member of the military and our senior vice president and chief nursing officer, has been actively training mental health professionals on suicide prevention in military veteran populations. Suicide is a tremendous problem for the military; in fact, statistics released in December identified 260 potential suicides in 2011.

But there is hope. Treatment for PTSD, TBI and combat depression does work and can help returning members of our military manage their conditions and live full lives. It is our job as mental health professionals to continue efforts to reduce stigma and other factors that block access to care. For their service and sacrifice, our military men and women deserve nothing less than our full attention, respect and the best mental healthcare available.

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