With one of the largest military populations in the country, Tennessee is trying to ensure that service men and women coming home from war with mental illnesses are comfortable enough to get themselves treated.
One way to aid that effort, state officials say, is to put their health care professionals into boot camp first.
Last week, Tennessee enrolled state and private health care workers from around the country into a new program called “Operation Immersion,” a three-day event meant to increase understanding of military culture and the treatment of personnel with post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury.
About 80 officials from as far away as Hawaii and Washington, D.C., spent three days and two nights bunking at the Tennessee National Guard Training Center in Smyrna. Meals consisted of packaged food rations known as MREs. Wake up calls were at 0500 hours. And physical training and chores kicked off the day.
“They don’t live the way of life that we’ve grown up in, so by educating them it helps them, basically, help us,” said Maj. Paul Gonzales, a National Guard psychological health expert and speaker at last week’s boot camp.
The attendees spent much of their time listening to professionals from the field who detailed PTSD issues and behavioral problems unique to soldiers. They also taught the health care providers how to create similar programs in their own states.
The sessions were designed for counselors, social workers, psychiatrists, psychologists, nurses and any other type of civilian practitioner who works with military personnel and wants to immerse themselves into the culture.
Trainers hope to have an impact in Tennessee, which boasts the sixth-largest National Guard in the nation and shares with Kentucky the distinction of housing the third-largest military population in the Army at Fort Campbell. It’s the seventh-largest in the Department of Defense.
More than 50,000 troops from the Volunteer State have served in the Iraq and Afghanistan theaters of war, including nearly 20,000 Tennessee National Guard troops.
The number of servicemen and women in the National Guard with mental health illnesses is slightly higher than those in active duty, according Noël Riley-Philpo, a licensed clinical social worker and director of Psychological Health for the Tennessee National Guard.
Guard members live dual lives, she said. They struggle readjusting to civilian life, are unsure whether their jobs will be there when they come back from war or have trouble reconciling the difference between who they are out in the field and their identity at home.
And those who do recognize they have may have a problem still attach a stigma to it, she said, where guardsmen are expected to “suck up, drive on and move forward.”
When members of the military do decide to seek treatment, it’s important that they’re met with health care workers who can understand their perspective, said Maggie Throckmorton, director of Special Projects for the Tennessee Department of Mental Health and Developmental Disabilities’ Division of Alcohol and Drug Abuse Services.
“We want to make certain that when behavior and health providers interact with a service member for the first time, that they don’t lose that opportunity to connect for ongoing services simply because they come from an uninformed place,” said Throckmorton, who is also one of the event’s main organizer.
This is the third such boot camp in Tenessee. The first two camps attracted almost 100 participants each, and neither made much of a dent on the department’s budget because they were using existing personnel to organize and host the events, she said.
“We do it as inexpensively as possible,” said Throckmorton.
The program is hosted by a consortium of agencies, including the state Department of Mental Health and Development Disabilities, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, the Tennessee National Guard and the Tennessee Veterans Task Force.