Peers to help combat veterans battle stress
SARATOGA COUNTY A new peer-based counseling program for military veterans who suffer from post-combat stress or need help readjusting will be ready to start this winter, Saratoga County officials said.
The county is one of four in the state selected for a new pilot program set up in response to levels of suicide and other issues among returning veterans in current wars.
In what’s called peer-to-peer counseling, trained veterans would provide counseling to others, who — the theory goes — would be receptive to help from another veteran. If successful, it could become a model for new counseling efforts statewide.
“In January, we hope to get started with five mentors and 25 veterans,” said Andrew Davis, the county’s director of veterans services, whose office will coordinate the program.
The program is paid for with a $200,000 grant awarded by the state Legislature earlier this year.
The intended audience is veterans who have returned from Afghanistan and Iraq in recent years and may be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, have a traumatic brain injury, or be experiencing problems in readjusting to civilian life. They would have mentors who had similar combat and readjustment experiences, and could provide advice and guidance.
The pilot program received $800,000 in funding in the 2012-13 state budget, with each participating county getting $200,000. The program is named for PFC James Dwyer, a Long Island resident who suffered from PTSD after his service in Iraq and committed suicide in 2008. State Sen. Roy J. McDonald, R-Saratoga, a Vietnam combat veteran, was one of the funding’s primary sponsors, which is apparently why Saratoga and Rensselaer counties are part of the pilot project.
Rensselaer County is contracting with the Mental Health Empowerment Project of Albany to provide the services in that county.
The peer-to-peer counseling will involve one-on-one or small group meetings. If successful, it could help address what’s believed to be a serious readjustment problem for some of those who have returned from combat.
The Pentagon in recent years has made an effort to address a record military suicide rate of nearly one per day, a problem generally attributed to the stress soldiers experience. But hard numbers on suicides among veterans after they return to civilian life are hard to come by. The Department of Veterans Affairs estimates it could be as many as 18 per day, nationwide.
A Brown University study in 2011 found that drunken driving, auto accidents and crash deaths are all higher among new veterans than among the general population.
Davis, who is an Iraq combat veteran, said only about 30 percent of those returning from Iraq or Afghanistan have gotten any sort of mental health counseling.
Under the new county program, an advisory board has already been established, and the county Board of Supervisors will vote next week in Ballston Spa on creating a part-time paid position for someone with an advanced degree in psychology or social work to oversee the program.
“The idea is that we have someone dedicated to the program,” said Hans Lehr, the county’s mental health director.
The position will be paid for with $180,000 of the state grant. The remaining $20,000 from the state grant will go to the University at Albany School of Social Work, which will evaluate the program results after two years, Lehr said.
The goal, Davis said, is that the county can have older veterans who served in Vietnam provide one-on-one counseling to the younger veterans of the more recent wars, who may be experiencing some of the same post-combat readjustment issues as their Vietnam-era counterparts.
State legislative hearings held last February, at which Davis testified, found that many veterans respond better to counseling from peers than from professional mental health counselors who haven’t been to war.
The other three counties participating in the pilot program are Rensselaer, Suffolk and Jefferson counties. Jefferson County is the location of Fort Drum.
The University at Albany will evaluate all four programs and then recommend which of their practices should be used in a statewide counseling program.