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Private psychiatrists offer free help to returning troops

Psychologist Brenna Chirby volunteers an hour a week at her McLean, Va., practice. Psychologist Brenna Chirby volunteers an hour a week at her McLean, Va., practice. (Jose Luis Magana/associated press)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Pauline Jelinek
Associated Press / May 26, 2008

WASHINGTON - Thousands of private counselors are offering free services to troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan with mental health problems, jumping in to help because the military is short on therapists.

On this Memorial Day, America's armed forces and its veterans are coping with depression, suicide, family, marital, and job problems on a scale not seen since Vietnam. The government has been in beg, borrow, and steal mode, trying to hire psychiatrists and other professionals, recruit them with incentives, or borrow them from other agencies.

Among those volunteering an hour a week to help is Brenna Chirby, a psychologist with a private practice in McLean, Va.

"It's only an hour of your time," said Chirby, who counsels a family member of a man deployed multiple times. "How can you not give that to these men and women that . . . are going oversees and fighting for us?"

There are only 1,431 mental health professionals among the nation's 1.4 million active-duty military personnel, said Terry Jones, a Pentagon spokesman on health issues.

About 20,000 more full- and part-time professionals provide healthcare services for the Veterans Administration and the Pentagon. They include psychiatrists, psychologists, psychiatric nurses, social workers, and substance abuse counselors.

According to veterans groups and healthcare advocates, that is not enough for a mental health crisis emerging among troops and their families.

"Honestly, much is being done by the Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs," said retired Army Brigadier General Stephen Xenakis, a psychiatrist. "But the need to help these men and women goes far beyond whatever any government agency can do."

About 300,000 of those who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan are estimated to have anxiety or post-traumatic stress, a recent private study said. Add in spouses left home to manage families and households without their partner as well as children deprived of parents during long or repeated tours of duty, and the number with problems balloons to 1 million, Xenakis said.

The VA says it has seen 120,000 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who have symptoms of mental health problems, half with post-traumatic stress disorder. Although rates are high from those two wars, most of the 400,000 patients seen in VA last year for post-traumatic stress disorder were Vietnam-era veterans, officials said.

Barbara V. Romberg, a clinical psychologist who practices in Washington, founded Give an Hour, a group of 1,200 mental health professionals donating one hour of free care a week to troops, veterans, or family members.

Romberg, in cooperation with the American Psychiatric Foundation, hopes to find 40,000 volunteers over the next three years. The effort to get the word out to those who need the help and to recruit and train volunteers is being backed by a $1 million grant from the Lilly Foundation.

Give an Hour is the largest of several such groups across the nation.

Jones said that while the military does not endorse volunteer health groups, it recognizes that they offer more options for veterans and their families.

He said the volunteers might be willing to join Tricare, referring to the network of more than 300,000 physicians and specialists and 55,000 pharmacies that support the military medical teams.

The military health system serves about 9.2 million people as well as their families and retirees and their families.

Jones said there are 3,000 mental health professionals available under Tricare in addition to the 1,431 in uniform. The VA said it has 17,000 full- and part-time mental health workers, 3,800 of which it has hired in the past few years.

The services are trying to hire about 575 more. Also, about 200 mental health officers from the US Public Health Service will be detailed to the Pentagon to work in military facilities, Jones said.

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