Filling a Need
Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Stigma. A greater risk of suicide. In addition to the pressures of readjusting to civilian life, America’s veterans face many mental health challenges. Too often, their family members are left with few supports to help them understand and cope with their loved one’s mental illness. NAMI’s Family-to-Family educational program has stepped in to help. A partnership between NAMI and the Veterans Administration is bringing the free, 12-week course to families of veterans across the country. The three-year agreement was recently renewed because “there was such a positive response to a previous session that families asked for more,” according to the VA.
The course brings NAMI’s message of hope and empowerment to VA locations, reaching military families on their own turf and focusing on their issues. Char Cate, a veteran of the Air Force who went on to work as a civil servant in the Army, knows about military culture. She is also familiar with mental illness—one of her family members lives with bipolar disorder. She thinks that the military places an emphasis on being strong, which can make it hard for people to ask for help. “If you have PTSD you can’t suck it up and move on, which is what the culture says you should do. That’s like asking someone with a broken leg to run a relay.” She adds that some families are hesitant to discuss a loved one’s mental illness “because they don’t want anyone to feel sorry for them,” but that they feel comfortable talking within the class’s accepting atmosphere.
And yet military values like bravery, a sense of mission and loyalty to one’s comrades can all act as strengths for veterans living with mental illness. “I loved being in the military; I’d join up tomorrow if I could,” says Samuel Hargrove, who spent much of his life in the Army and National Guard. Being forced to retire due to mental and physical problems meant the loss of a way of life, but he’s found a renewed sense of purpose as a NAMI advocate and spokesperson for veterans’ issues. He hopes to use NAMI programs like In Our Own Voice reach others who “hide their mental illness behind a mask” as he once did out of fear that he would lose his rank or comrades’ respect.
Spreading the Word
For advocates accustomed to the broader health system and its challenges, the VA can present a whole new set of rules to learn. Everything from security to get into the building to the protocol for setting up a group can be unfamiliar, often varying from location to location.
Instructors use a variety of methods for outreach, including setting up veterans’ tables at a NAMIWalk, displays in hospitals and giving mental health professionals flyers about the program.
Extending NAMI’s Reach
“It’s happened in my last three groups that a student has brought back a family member or a friend whose family is touched by mental illness. That shows you that the program is successful,” says instructor Sheila Boone, state Family-to-Family trainer for NAMI Michigan. She also said participants bring home materials and leave them on the kitchen table, often to find the other members of the family reading them.
Given the many families of veterans affected by mental health issues (an estimated 12-20 percent of veterans are returning with PTSD), there are many more families in need of NAMI. “The Department of Defense needs people with our experience to be in there to be liaisons between the military and programs out there to help,” says Char. “I tell military bases that they don’t have to develop anything—NAMI has these programs all ready to go.”