The need to connect veterans who have recently returned from the war zones of Iraq and Afghanistan with mental health services has grown more urgent as the disturbing mental health statistics continue to rise.
The evidence is overwhelming that many veterans returning from war are not getting the help they need.
An estimated 22 veterans commit suicide each day, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. Forty percent of the returning veterans report having difficulty adjusting to civilian society, according to Pew Research Center study. And 20 percent of veterans — almost half of whom won’t seek treatment — suffer from clinical PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) or major depression, often leading to addictions and self-isolation, according to a Rand Corporation study.
Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) may develop after a person is exposed to one or more traumatic events, such as sexual assault, warfare, serious injury, or threats of imminent death. The diagnosis may be given when a group of symptoms, such as disturbing recurring flashbacks, avoidance or numbing of memories of the event, and hyperarousal, continue for more than a month after the occurrence of a traumatic event…it can literally drive a person mad!
Because of intense stigma associated with seeking out mental health care is particularly strong within the military, veterans, especially those returning from combat are one of the most difficult populations for mental health-care professionals to reach.
“The traditional medical model — in an office with the door closed — is the last thing they want,” said psychiatrist Jonathan Shay, MD, an expert on PTSD. “I’m convinced that’s where peers come in. Peers are indispensible. It takes a community to heal these wounds.”
Generally speaking peer support is distinct from other forms of social support in that the source of support is a peer, a person who is similar in fundamental ways to the recipient of the support; their relationship is one of equality. A peer is in a position to offer support by virtue of relevant or lived experience: he or she has “been there, done that” and can relate to others who are now in a similar situation.
Peer support providers “connect with veterans in ways that other mental health professionals can’t”, said Shaili Jain, MD, a clinical assistant of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the medical school. Through phone calls and on-site support groups, they give advice on how to survive the day-to-day challenges of readjusting to civilian life based on their personal experience. Their role isn’t to provide psychiatric treatment, but to help break down the barriers that are blocking other veterans from getting the care they need. With thousands of veterans across the country suffering from PTSD relying on the Department of Veterans Affairs for care, integrating peer support into treatment is growing in popularity, Jain said.
“We’ve been publishing on the concept of peer support in general and on the specific program,” said Steven Lindley, MD, PhD, associate professor of psychiatry at Stanford and the program’s leader. “We’ve shown that there’s more of a bonding with the peer support specialists than with psychologists or psychiatrists,” said Lindley, who also is director of outpatient mental health for Veterans Affairs Palo Alto Health Care System. “They’re providing the glue that helps these clients stay in treatment.”
Social support is the existence of positive psychosocial interactions with others with whom there is mutual trust and concern.
Positive relationships contribute to positive adjustment and buffer against stressors and adversities by offering (a) emotional support (esteem, attachment, and reassurance), (b) instrumental support (material goods and services), (c) companionship and (d) information support (advice, guidance, and feedback).
Peer support can occur within, outside or around traditional mental health services and programs, between two people or in groups.
Peer support is a key concept in the recovery approach and in consumer-operated services programs. Consumers/clients of mental health programs have also formed non-profit self-help organizations,and serve to support each other and to challenge associated stigma and discrimination.
Peer support, either individual or group lead is also highly effect against counteracting suicide, depression and PTSD.
See special report: Best Practices of Peer Support http://www.dcoe.mil/…/Best_Practices_Identified_for_Peer_Su…
For PTSD sufferers, family members, friends, and caregivers, peer support groups can be helpful in the following ways:
- Assure you that others are going through a similar experience
- Allow you to connect with other people who may better understand what you’re going through and share different perspectives
- Provide an opportunity to ask for help or discuss things that bother you
- Encourage you to trust others
- Learn tips for handling every day challenges
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs recommends beginning with an online search to find a peer support group in your area or on the Internet. Try using the search terms, “PTSD support groups,” “disaster support groups,” or “[name of traumatic event] support groups.” Your health care provider or mental health professional also may be able to connect you with groups in your area or online.
Other resources include the following:
- offers a list of support groups across the country for a number of different mental health conditions.
- Sidran Institute does not offer clinical care or counseling, but Help Desk can help locate support groups for people who have experienced trauma.
- National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI) Information HelpLine provides support, referral and information on mental illness care. Or find family support groups in a NAMI state or local affiliate by calling 1.800.950.6264 (NAMI).
- Helping a Family Member Who Has PTSD from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.