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Psychiatrists Volunteer To Help Soldiers Come Home

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It’s so reassuring that when help is needed, Americans step up to the plate. In a media cycle of condemning the US government for not helping our soldiers when they come home to re-enter civilian society, private psychiatrists are offering free services to military with emotional problems.

On this Memorial Day, America’s armed forces and its veterans are coping with depression, suicide, family, marital and job problems on a scale not seen since Vietnam. The government has been in beg-borrow-and-steal mode, trying to hire psychiatrists and other professionals, recruit them with incentives or borrow them from other agencies.

Among those volunteering an hour a week to help is Brenna Chirby, a psychologist with a private practice in McLean, Va.

“It’s only an hour of your time,” said Chirby, who counsels a family member of a man deployed multiple times. “How can you not give that to these men and women that … are going oversees and fighting for us?”

There are only 1,431 mental health professionals among the nation’s 1.4 million active-duty military personnel, said Terry Jones, a Pentagon spokesman on health issues.

About 20,000 more full- and part-time professionals provide health care services for the Veterans Administration and the Pentagon. They include psychiatrists, psychologists, psychiatric nurses, social workers and substance abuse counselors.

According to veterans groups and health care experts, that is not enough for a mental health crisis emerging among troops and their families.

“Honestly, much is being done by the Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs,” said retired Army Brig. Gen. Stephen Xenakis, a psychiatrist. “But the need to help these men and women goes far beyond whatever any government agency can do.”

The VA says it has seen 120,000 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who have symptoms of mental health problems, half with post-traumatic stress disorder. Although rates are high from those two wars, most of the 400,000 patients seen in VA last year for PTSD were Vietnam-era veterans, officials said.

Civilian groups are trying to step in for troops from the current conflicts.

“There are over 400,000 mental health professionals in our great country,” said Barbara V. Romberg, a clinical psychologist who practices in Washington. “Clearly, we have the resources to meet this challenge.”

Romberg founded Give An Hour, a group of 1,200 mental health professionals donating one hour of free care a week to troops, veterans or family members. They have to commit to doing it for a year.

Romberg, in cooperation with the American Psychiatric Foundation, hopes to find 40,000 volunteers over the next three years, or about 10 percent of available civilian professionals. The effort to get the word out to those who need the help and to recruit and train volunteers is being backed by a $1 million grant from the Lilly Foundation.

Romberg’s group is the largest of a number across the nation.

Nearly 200 also have volunteered for the Soldiers Project, started by psychiatrists at the Ernest S. Lawrence Trauma Center of the Los Angeles Institute and Society for Psychoanalytic Studies – and now operating in Chicago, Seattle and New York.

The Coming Home Project in the San Francisco area has dozens of volunteers. A group of veterans, psychotherapists and interfaith leaders, it offers everything from retreats and workshops to yoga and other stress management programs as well as the counseling.

Thank you to all of the volunteers.

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