Government Relations Update

Several years into the global war on terror, many returning service members are battling significant mental health problems and military families are under heightened stress, said experts at the May congressional briefing, "Addressing the Mental Health Needs of Service Members, Veterans, and their Families: Innovative Strategies for Prevention, Treatment, and Recovery."

The briefing, held in May to highlight the mental health concerns of service members and their families, was co-sponsored by APA's Public Interest and Education Government Relations Offices, the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies (ISTSS), and the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA). The event was hosted in honor of Mental Health Month in collaboration with Representatives Grace Napolitano (D-Calif.) and Tim Murphy (R-Pa.) and the Congressional Mental Health Caucus.

APA member Bonnie Green, PhD, of Georgetown University Medical Center, moderated the briefing and welcomed the unusually large crowd representing key congressional offices and national stakeholder groups. Green, an expert in trauma and a former ISTSS president, began by providing a context for the mental health issues facing many returning service members and their families and introduced the distinguished panel of experts.

Amy Street, PhD, a researcher in the Women's Health Sciences Division of the National Center for PTSD (NC-PTSD), VA Boston Healthcare System, discussed the special issues faced by women service members during deployment and after they return home, including an increased risk of sexual trauma, the potential for decreased social support and an increased risk for parenting stress. There is hope, she said: The NC-PTSD-established by Congress in 1989-works to improve the lives of these women veterans and their families by conducting research related to female veterans; educating VA clinicians to increase their sensitivity to women veterans' needs; evaluating gender differences in the effectiveness of PTSD treatments; and partnering with the Department of Defense (DoD) to understand women's unique risk factors and to develop PTSD prevention strategies.

Street also identified some ongoing and future NC-PTSD initiatives of relevance to returning veterans, including resource guides (including the Iraq War Clinician Guide), dissemination of evidence-based treatments for PTSD throughout the VA and efforts to provide training and consultation regarding evidence-based treatments for PTSD with active duty military.

William Saltzman, PhD, of the University of California, Los Angeles, and the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, discussed the challenges military families face. Among them are the extended and repeated separations, altered family roles and responsibilities, increased stress for the caretaking parent, and possible parental mental health problems, physical injury or loss.

Earlier this year, Saltzman and colleagues began the Families OverComing Under Stress (FOCUS) Project, a resiliency training program for military families with children that aims to reduce the effect of combat stress on families by supporting open communication, encouraging parents to maintain consistent routines and helping parents develop positive coping skills.

Compounding the difficulties that military personnel may face are the barriers to mental health care, added Tom Tarantino, an Iraq veteran who serves as a policy associate in IAVA's Washington office. Tarantino shared his own combat experiences as both a cavalry and mortar platoon leader and described the barriers to mental health care faced by many of his fellow service members when they returned home, including stigma, concerns about their military careers, timely access to quality services, and gaps between the DoD and VA systems.

Lt. Col. Jay Stone, PhD, a psychologist with the Defense Center of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury, gave an overview of the DoD Center for Deployment Psychology (CDP). The CDP, directed by APA member David Riggs, PhD, was established by Congress in 2006 following advocacy spearheaded by APA's Education Government Relations Office. This tri-service training consortium was developed to train military and civilian psychologists, psychology interns and residents and other behavioral health professionals to provide high-quality deployment-related behavioral health services to military personnel and their families. Specifically, Stone discussed the center's two-week intensive training course, hosted five times a year. Additional workshops and seminars are conducted across the country by the CDP faculty.

Diane L. Elmore, PhD, MPH, is a senior legislative and federal affairs officer in APA's Public Interest Government Relations Office and co-director of APA's Congressional Fellowship Program.