Bills target soldiers' mental woes

Legislation approved by the Senate Defense and Veterans Affairs Committee would go even further. The bill, filed by Sen. Leticia van de Putte, D-San Antonio, would require the Department of State Health Services to develop a set of guidelines for professionals treating veterans with psychological disorders.

Another part of the bill would coordinate mental-health services in areas without Veterans Affairs offices. The bill has features of one filed by state Sen. Eliot Shapleigh, D-El Paso.

Gary Larcenaire, chief executive officer of El Paso Mental Health Mental Retardation, has started a program to train U.S. veterans in mental-health counseling. The idea is to help returning soldiers overcome the stigma of being treated for mental illness.

"There was a military culture I could never really understand," he said. "They will not speak with a trained psychological professional who has not seen combat."

A 2005 Veterans Affairs study found that 20 percent of Iraq war veterans reported some form of psychological disorder. Larcenaire said that, because of underreporting from veterans, the statistics on psychological disorders probably were on the low side.
Veterans Affairs in El Paso is starting to see progress in soldiers who seek treatment, said Dr. Merranda Miran, who leads the post-traumatic stress disorder clinical at the VA.

"They've gone back to work or wherever and started to advocate for some of their friends to receive mental health treatment," she said.

Veteran Mike Anslinger is training as a mental-health professional as part of MHMR's efforts to reach out to veterans. He said soldiers often did not acknowledge psychological disorders, even when services were readily available.

"Nine times out of 10, everybody says 'no' because they just want to go home," he said.

But, he said, when veterans reach a crisis, getting help may take too long.

Sunday, a Fort Bliss soldier committed suicide in Puerto Rico before he was to return to his unit in Texas. The soldier reportedly was receiving psychiatric treatment for a previous tour in Iraq.

Anslinger says the military is overwhelmed, but strides can be made by educating soldiers and their relatives about the symptoms of psychological disorders.

"The Pentagon says there is no stigma. It's still there," Anslinger said. "That's something we need to squash."

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