What Gulf Coast Congressman Gene Taylor wanted the Easter Bunny to bring him.
South Mississippi Living 4/07

Sunday, September 16, 2007

PTSD has strong presence on Coast

Veterans face both combat and Katrina

The number of Gulf Coast veterans seeking treatment for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder rivals that of major cities such as San Antonio, Minneapolis and Salt Lake City, according to an internal document obtained by McClatchy Newspapers through the Freedom of Information Act.

With the New Orleans and Gulfport facilities destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, the stress of nearly 1,400 veterans with PTSD and their 10,700 outpatient visits during 2006 fell on remaining facilities of the VA Gulf Coast Veterans Health Care System in Biloxi, Mobile, Pensacola and Panama City. The workload is intense, said Kelly Woods, assistant chief of psychology services in the Gulf Coast system. They see at least 20 people each month in a residential program and do at least 100 new and followup appointments each month in Biloxi and at other sites.

Many PTSD vets are from the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, and the numbers needing treatment are expected to grow as more come home.

Several will have to deal with both combat stress and losses suffered from the hurricane, he said. PTSD symptoms, from the vague, "My wife says I'm different," to things like nightmares, violent outbursts and substance abuse, take months to years to surface. The combination of war and Katrina has pushed some to exhibit symptoms earlier. "Katrina was a trigger - I need help," Woods said. "Lots of guys lost their home while in an active war zone."

The report said there were few PTSD inpatients in the Gulf Coast system. However, the four-week intensive residential program started in October 2006 may not be reflected in those numbers. In spite of 20 beds, it's considered outpatient, Woods said.

The report said there was $643,739 devoted to PTSD care in the Gulf Coast system in 2006, or about $585 per patient. Edwin Cassell, spokesman for the hospital, said that number is too low, and their budget is $1.9 million. He said they spend as much as is needed per patient.

The larger service area encompassing the Gulf Coast system did not fare well in overall PTSD performance, ranking 18th out of 21 surveyed. There are 23 service areas nationwide.

Services could be better, said Henry Cook, the national commander of the Military Order of the Purple Heart, which represents veterans. Even though soldiers should be seen within 30 days of enrollment at the veteran's hospital, that doesn't always happen. Getting treatment from a civilian professional with no military background creates a disconnect, he said.

Both Cook and Woods, who served in the military, worry about suicide. Last January, a 23-year old Marine from the Coast killed himself after returning from Iraq. His case worker called the day of the funeral. Woods said the hospital tries to catch those at risk, from intake evaluations, to a suicide hotline, to walk-in services.

The stigma of mental illness in the military prevents many from seeking care, Woods said. Soldiers don't want to be seen as weak, and many worry that a diagnosis of PTSD will trickle down to supervisors and ruin their careers.

"It's difficult for someone 21 years old to say, 'I'm crying all the time,'" he said.

PTSD treatment information

Sarah Herring, LGSW, Acting OEF/OIF Program 1-800-296-8872 ext. 5440

John Sherman, OEF/OIF Patient Advocate 1-800-296-8872 ext. 4933

Mental Health Outpatient Clinic, 1-800-296-8872 ext. 8089/4790

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 1-800-273-TALK

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