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SSW Conference Keynoter Addresses Treating Veterans' Mental Health

NORTHAMPTON, Mass. – A U.S. Army colonel, whose research documented the psychological effects of tours in Iraq and Afghanistan on more than 6,200 soldiers, offered lessons for mental health workers now treating veterans of those wars.

Lt. Col. Carl Castro, director of military operations in the medical research program at Fort Detrick, Md., addressed a capacity crowd at the start of the three-day national conference “Combat Stress: Understanding the Challenges, Preparing for the Return,” organized by the Smith College School for Social Work and the organization “Give an Hour.”

“Mental health training [for soldiers] works,” said Castro, referring to the preparation known in the military as battlemind training. “This is where I think mental health workers can do the most in advance.”

Three months after their return from deployment, soldiers who had received battlemind training reported fewer symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and fewer sleep problems than those who received standard stress education, said Castro.

Castro delivered the first talk of the conference, which celebrates the School for Social Work’s longstanding dedication to the treatment of war veterans. The school was founded in 1918 to train mental health workers to address “shell shock” experienced by World War I soldiers. It currently offers a full scholarship to a member of the military who wants to treat veterans.

The need is real. According to recent reports, more than 300,000 members of the U.S. military are now experiencing PTSD, and another 320,000 have most likely experienced a traumatic brain injury. Earlier this year, the Army reported that the suicide rate among the enlisted is at a 26-year high.

None of the military branches had any standardized battlemind training at the start of the U.S. action in Afghanistan and Iraq, said Castro, noting that has since changed.

Castro’s research also indicated the military needs to provide training on responding to the moral and ethical challenges that service members will undoubtedly face in regard to the treatment of noncombatants. Training for mid-level military leaders is also a necessity because service members’ confidence in those leaders – the people from whom they receive orders on a daily basis – can reduce the impact of combat trauma.

Castro touched upon another widely reported issue surrounding ongoing military efforts: repeated redeployments. The mental health adjustment that takes place in a solider returning from battle takes longer than 12 months, he said, which means it does not occur by the time many soldiers are redeployed.

Further, the longer the duration of multiple deployments, the more likely they are to lead to mental health problems. “You are not going to harden soldiers by exposing them to the horrors of combat,” he said.

Castro’s remarks resonated both personally and professionally with many of those wearing their military uniforms in the audience.

“I think one of the biggest issues is getting people to accept care,” said Capt. Robert Williams, a social worker in the Air Force in Spokane, Wash., who has twice been deployed in recent years. “The persona of the military is ‘I take care of other people.’ We are not good at taking care of ourselves.”


6/26/08   By Kristen Cole
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