By Amy Wilson Hardy, MSSW, BS
Returning home from deployment is never easy and there is a saying in the military that “no one returns unchanged.”
For some veterans, these changes take the shape of physical injuries. For others, there are invisible injuries that require mental health treatment.
Most frequently, veterans’ mental health symptoms include reintegration stressors, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injury (TBI). If these are not addressed, they can lead to substance abuse and suicide.
The mental health of veterans is an issue nationwide—and a critical one in Tennessee. Almost 502,000 veterans live in the state, and some of them need mental health services. More specifically, in 2012 the National Council on Behavioral Health stated that of the 52,943 Operation Enduring Freedom/Operation Iraqi Freedom Veterans living in Tennessee, roughly 30 percent had been diagnosed with a mental health disorder.
Unfortunately, many veterans in Tennessee have difficulty accessing services. There are several reasons for this. The first reason is stigma. Even though attitudes are changing within the military, many veterans still fear being seen as weak or unfit while combat veterans still on active duty worry about being demoted. Another reason that veterans don’t access services is because they are unaware of how to access services.
The Department of Veterans Affairs is working in a variety of ways to help fight the stigma and help veterans understand how to access available services. An example of such efforts is a program called Make the Connection. At the program’s website, veterans and their loved ones can explore information privately, find information about mental health issues and learn about treatment options.
Make the Connection also provides true stories of veterans who faced challenges, reached out for help and are finding ways to overcome their challenges. Through Make the Connection, the VA hopes to diminish stigma and help veterans and their families access resources.
Geography also can be a barrier to accessing mental health services in Tennessee. Veterans in more rural areas are often underserved because of the distance to available resources, lack of transportation or other logistical issues. To overcome this barrier, some private outpatient mental health care facilities are attempting to address these issues through online support groups and telephone services.
In recent years, Tennessee’s VA outpatient clinics have begun to utilize telehealth and video-to-home technologies so veterans can receive care from VA providers without leaving home. Utilizing the VA’s Veterans Crisis Line is another way geographic barriers can be overcome.
This confidential, toll-free hotline provides veterans in crisis and their families and friends with qualified Department of Veterans Affairs responders.
If there is a crisis situation, veterans and their loved ones can contact the crisis line by calling 800-273-8255 and pressing 1, chatting online or sending a text to 838255. The hotline provides support 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year.
In Tennessee, there are mental health providers who are trained to work with the general population, but few in the state have received specialized training to work with veterans. This is changing, however, as more education and training is made available.
UT’s College of Social Work is involved in this effort in two ways. The first is by offering a series of eight free, online workshops related to military social work.
Additionally, the College of Social Work is providing specialized training to master’s level social work students through its graduate certificate program in trauma-focused treatment. This program provides students with the knowledge and skills needed to provide trauma-specific interventions and create trauma-informed programming and policy development. Those completing the certificate program have the knowledge and skills necessary to provide effective treatment to those affected by many different types of trauma, including combat trauma.
For those interested in working with veterans specifically, there is coursework in military social work that provides specialized knowledge and understanding of the military and its culture. For more information about the UT College of Social Work Graduate Certificate Program in Trauma-focused treatment visit http://www.csw.utk.edu/certificates/trauma.htm.
 Department of Veterans Affairs. (2012). Guide to VA Mental Health Services for Veterans and Families. http://www.mentalhealth.va.gov/docs/MHG_English.pdf
Amy Wilson Hardy Contact
Amy Wilson Hardy is a social worker and has worked as a research associate for the UT College of Social Work Office of Research and Public Service (UT SWORPS) since 2005. She earned her bachelor’s degree from the University of Mary Washington and master’s degree in social work from UT Knoxville.