Over a million troops have been deployed overseas since 9/11. It’s a staggering number when you think about the services returning veterans will need now and in the future. The Department of Veterans Affairs hasn’t always been in the good graces of veterans seeking medical attention, especially mental health services.
Dr. Brett Hickens is a psychologist with the VA. He says the organization is making great strides.
"The VA over the last 5-10 years has invested a lot in expanding mental health services available to veterans so they’ve hired lots of mental health providers and continue to hire additional providers to make sure that we have enough mental health professionals to meet the need."
Hickens says a vet seeking care for post-traumatic stress disorder will find that the best care is at the VA.
"And then they’ve also invested a lot of effort in training providers in the most up to date empirically supported treatments to make sure that the veterans are getting the best care possible. I think it’s fair to say that the VA is a leading expert in treating combat related problems like post traumatic stress disorder. So if a veteran comes to the VA to get care for mental health problem they can be sure that they’re going to get good quality care."
But access to that care isn’t always available to vets living off the road system in Alaska.
"If you look on national basis the mental health needs of veterans in rural areas are similar to what you’d see in an urban area but the bigger challenge is the access issues. In Alaska that’s even more pronounced because a veteran can’t even drive in to the VA if they do want to get care."
Knowing who actually needs mental health care is another challenge. Hickens says treating PTSD is particularly difficult because often veterans- for varying reasons- won’t seek help.
"They don’t want to come into the VA. They may have previously had a bad experience, they may just be afraid of coming in because they don’t want to talk about the negative things that happened to them during combat and so they’ll really avoid a VA facility."
Hickens says it’s often with the help of another veteran, a family member, pastor or other person in the vet’s life that they choose to seek assistance. Realizing this, the VA is increasing the number of tribal vet representatives -specially trained community members who can assist all vets- in small communities like Kodiak.
"That’s one of the reasons why what we’re trying to do in the Office Rural Health is develop these partnerships between the VA and the community so that even though a veteran may not want to into a VA facility, somebody in that community may know that that veteran needs helps and can help direct that veteran to the appropriate care."
You can find an extensive list of local and online resources for veterans from the VA here.