I had the chance to attend a recent press conference announcing the expansion of a nationwide effort to help U.S. veterans. The American Psychiatric Foundation, the Lilly Foundation, and Give an Hour Foundation joined forces to provide free mental health care for Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans and their families.
This innovative program allows mental health professionals to donate at least one hour a week of their professional time to serve the needs of the military. Collectively, this donated time adds up to a large improvement in access to services beyond the current reach for many of our nation’s heroes.
I am also hoping that the Give an Hour Foundation will join forces with Revolution Health to provide a therapeutic online community for military personnel and families who need support.
An interview with Barbara V. Romberg, Ph.D., founder and president of the Give an Hour Foundation
Dr. Val: Tell me about the Give an Hour initiative. Who came up with the idea, what does it involve, and how is the concept being promoted?
Dr. Romberg: I grew up in the post-Vietnam era and watched my brother’s friends go to war — and they either never came back or they returned as completely different people. So about three years ago, I was watching the Iraq war unfold and I became more and more aware that people were returning home with some very significant mental health issues. I began worrying about whether there were enough mental health services available to meet their needs, and I wondered if we in the mental health community should step up to provide additional services.
The thing that really pushed me to do something about this, as a busy private practitioner, was when I was driving in Bethesda [Md.] with my 9-year-old daughter. We passed a homeless veteran on the street and she said to me, “Mom, how can we?” It was the use of the word “we” that touched me. “How can we let this happen to these men and women who serve our country?”
And I thought, I can’t let her grow up and look to me and say, “Why didn’t your profession do something?” So I said, “OK, I’ve got to do this.” And that was the beginning of the Give an Hour initiative.
The Give an Hour initiative is a national network of mental health professionals — psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, licensed counselors and therapists — who volunteer an hour of their time per week to serve the needs of the military. Participants are collected in an online database. Military personnel can come to our website at www.giveanhour.org, and enter their ZIP code and the services they seek, and we’ll return a list of providers available in their area. If there is no one listed in the database in the search area, we offer phone support.
Dr. Val: In your opinion, how is the health care system failing Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans who need mental health services?
Dr. Romberg: I’m not sure that it’s failing so much as it’s just being overwhelmed. The Department of Defense and the VA [Veterans Administration] are working really hard, but they’re just overwhelmed. It’s our duty, honor and opportunity to step up as mental health professionals and give back to the military. Regardless of what you think of the war, it’s a wonderful opportunity for our country to heal. The work is also therapeutic for the therapist.
Dr. Val: In terms of access to mental health services, where are the largest shortcomings: 1. Access to psychiatrists? 2. Access to psychologists? 3. Access to affordable therapies? 4. Community support?
Dr. Romberg: Yes. [Laughing.] All of the above. Many of the National Guard and Army Reserves staff return to rural communities after their tours of duty. There often aren’t providers who accept TRICARE [military health care insurance] in rural communities, so access to mental health services is limited. The VA is doing a lot of good work, but there are long waits and not enough therapists for regular ongoing visits. Continuity of care really suffers.
Dr. Val: What’s the most important message that you’d like to relay to a general public audience about mental health services and veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan?
Dr. Romberg: These men and women are put in situations that are sometimes horrific and excruciatingly stressful for long periods of time. If you put any of us into those situations, it would affect how we experience ourselves and the world. What we want to do is educate the public so that they understand this and know how to talk to their neighbors and co-workers. When people don’t understand an illness, they can become uncomfortable and fearful that they may say the wrong thing. But by normalizing mental health issues through public education efforts, we can reduce the associated stigma of mental illness.
Military personnel need to be comfortable in accessing services when they need them. For starters, they can visit the Give an Hour website. We’re also affiliated with many other Veterans Affairs associations like the Wounded Warriors program, National Military Family Association, and TAPS. These organizations can offer assistance or put people in touch with us as needed.