Kentucky National Guard employs new strategy to counsel soldiers - WDRB 41 Louisville News

Kentucky National Guard employs new strategy to counsel soldiers

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FRANKFORT, Ky. (WDRB) - Following the withdrawal of troops in Iraq and the proposed drawdown in Afghanistan, the National Guard still has plenty of missions on its roster. One of the most important is taking care of its most precious resource: the combat veteran.

In an unprecedented move, the Kentucky National Guard has joined forces with the Kentucky
Department of Veterans Affairs and the University of Louisville to develop a unique
counseling program that will significantly change the way combat veterans are treated.

Capt. Stephanie Fields, Deputy State Surgeon for the Kentucky National Guard, said the
initial goal of the new program is to provide additional behavioral health resources for
all of Kentucky's combat veterans without the standard wait period they often experience
with the Veterans Administration or their civilian medical provider.

"While everyone acknowledges that the Veterans Administration has been providing excellent
treatment, the volume of soldiers has caused considerable wait times," said Fields. "This
new program will be a great help in that regard."

But there is more to the program than just cutting waiting times. The use of medications
and confidentiality issues also needed to be addressed.

"We also wanted to decrease the amount of medication use by our combat veterans by helping
them with problem solving skills and ways to manage the stresses in their lives," Fields
said.

Confidentiality was a huge factor in the program. "Sometimes our veterans are reluctant to
come in for help because of a perceived stigma, or they might be afraid asking for help
might affect their military career," said Fields. "We had to provide assurances if we were
going to make any headway into those problems."

Thanks to an $80,000 grant from the Kentucky Veterans Program Trust Fund, the new
program attacks all three goals head on. A full time social worker handles requests with a
relatively short turnaround time and a team from the University of Louisville has an
innovative approach to dealing with the medication and privacy issues.

Dr. Eric Russ is an assistant professor at the University of Louisville's Department of
Psychiatry who used to work with the VA.  He is very familiar with the issues facing
today's combat veteran and he has a staff that shares his passion.

"Our team is really enthusiastic about working with combat veterans. We've got a lot of
expertise at the university in working on PTSD and depression and I've worked with
veterans before, so this opportunity was pretty exciting for all of us."

"While medications can certainly play an important part in the treatment of some of these
disorders," said Russ, "for something like PTSD the gold standard treatment of care is
'talk therapy.' Particular kinds of talk therapy have proven to do really well, reducing
PTSD symptoms in as little as ten to twelve weeks. We work really hard to keep medication
use to a minimum and in some cases use none at all."

Ten to twelve weeks is optimal, Russ explained. "The average is more like sixteen. This is
still a pretty quick turnaround for folks who may have been dealing with these problems
for a year or even in some cases several years."

Then there is the issue of privacy and confidentiality. Russ hopes that because the U of L
program is outside of the VA and the military system, veterans will feel more comfortable
coming to his team for help. "We can provide a place that is outside of their chain of
command and the military structure, but still provide effective care."

Floyd Hunsaker, Director of Psychological Health for the Kentucky Army National Guard is
especially excited about the new program.

"We certainly welcome this additional resource to help with our combat veterans," said
Hunsaker. "This will help them deal with the issues they are facing following their
deployments. And it doesn't have to be a PTSD issue. If you've got problems at home,
things don't seem right, this is a great opportunity to address all of those things."

"If you're a soldier and your friends and family say you've changed, maybe you should stop
and think about what they're talking about," said Hunsaker. "The skills that kept them
alive over there sometimes get in the way of what we consider normal life here at home.
And this program is here to help them."

According to Hunsaker, addressing confidentiality and getting hooked on medication are key
to overcoming most veteran's reluctance to asking for help.

"Now there's no excuse," he said.

Russ expressed confidence in the service the new program provides. He hopes to help not
just the individual combat veteran, but their families and loved ones as well.

"The big message for families is that these problems are treatable," he said. "Don't
believe what you see on television or in the movies. For a long time in mental health,
particularly with veterans coming back from Vietnam and other conflicts, we didn't have a
good handle on PTSD and depression. We do now."

"These are diseases that aren't suffered alone - they are suffered by families. The
treatment we do with individuals can go a long way in improving relationships and helping
patients reconnect with their families, with their spouses and with their kids."

If you are a combat veteran in need, or you know of a combat veteran who can benefit from
this program, contact Capt. Fields at stephanie.k.fields.mil@mail.mil or (502) 607-1046.

Troops requesting confidential appointments can contact Dr. Russ at 502-813-6631.

It is not a requirement that you be in the Kentucky National Guard to participate.

Copyright 2013 WDRB News. All rights reserved.

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