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Church, VA partner to help rural veterans 

Tackle PTSD, other problems.

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For some veterans, reintegrating into civilian life is a rocky process. Many suffer from PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), estimated to afflict 400,000 veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts. Sometimes, depression and even suicide follow (It's estimated 22 veterans commit suicide daily). Some return with brain injuries. Vets in rural areas may have a tougher time getting help. They tend to be uncomfortable contacting mental health care providers, preferring instead to share problems with VA clergy or their church's pastor.

Enter the VA/Clergy Partnership for Rural Veterans, a North Little Rock-based program that aims to reconcile science-and spirituality-based approaches to treating mental illness. It began with a pilot program in El Dorado and has expanded to Russellville, Pine Bluff, Searcy, Mountain Home and Jonesboro. At each site, clergy, representatives of non-profit organizations, veterans and mental health providers meet monthly to discuss ways to help veterans in their area of the state.  

Most who take part, such as William Flynn, pastor of Grace Chapel Pentecostal Church in Russellville, are volunteers. Flynn came aboard in 2010 after hearing about the suicide of a local veteran who had returned from Afghanistan. "It's just sickening to think that a person who sacrificed that way would come home and feel that there was no hope for them," Flynn said.

Flynn believes the mentally ill are better helped by a team of spiritual leaders and mental health workers. But establishing initial trust between the two sides has been hard: "The psychology departments were saying, 'Listen, all you want to do is make these people quit taking their medicine and just anoint them with oil. And you're not helping the situation either, because these people are still going off the range. And the Christians — the pastors, the clergy — they were looking at the mental health [workers] and they were saying, 'You people don't want to ever acknowledge anything is wrong outside of what you can fix,' " Flynn said. "Both sides had a valid argument."

Flynn tries to bridge this divide. He acknowledges that the church doesn't always have the answer to mental illness. "A lot of the therapy is just listening," he said. Instead of trying to heal those who confide in him, he may refer them to trusted mental health providers. He also counters bad information preventing some veterans from checking out their local mental health providers. "They just kind of assume that, 'If I go in, they're gonna take away my rights to own a gun. I'm never gonna be able to go hunt again.' There's a lot of issues, but they don't want the stigma. They feel like people will look at them different."

The program was established in 2009 by Dr. Greer Sullivan, a psychiatrist and health services researcher with the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. She has directed the South Central Mental Illness Research Education and Clinical Center, which includes 10 VA medical centers, 36 community-based outpatient clinics and more than 1,300 mental health providers.

Sullivan knew these resources were used less by rural veterans than their urban counterparts and thought clergy and faith communities could serve as effective liaisons. "This is what prompted her to say, 'Why don't we train these pastors as first responders to help increase access to mental health services?' " said Steve Sullivan, who has directed the VA-Clergy Partnership for Rural Veterans since 2009. Steve Sullivan (no relation to Greer Sullivan), a chaplain in the Central Arkansas Veterans Healthcare System, has helped train more than 200 people in faith communities to be aware of mental illness symptoms. In all, his program has made 150 referrals to mental health or VA services and has made contact with roughly 1,000 rural veterans, he said.

Many veterans' needs extend beyond mental health. Perhaps they need to pay a utility bill, find a job or meet with someone to alleviate loneliness. Here, one of the program's multiple community partners may step in. The National Guard, for instance, provides family assistance specialists who "do non-clinical free counseling for any veterans anywhere. They'll drive to them, eat with them at Taco Bell or wherever," Steve Sullivan said.

In Jefferson County, program employee Travis Harden helps veterans file paperwork and navigate the VA's sometimes labyrinthine bureaucracy. From 2004-08, Harden served two tours of duty in Iraq and was diagnosed with PTSD. He knew nothing about filing disability claims and figuring out the process took much longer than he thought necessary. He wants to prevent frustration for other veterans on similar paths. When he refers veterans to a mental health provider or treatment center, he checks up by phone at least three times: soon after enrollment, then two and four weeks later.

On Sundays, Harden is an associate pastor at Pine Bluff's Greater Mount Calvary Missionary Church. He said he can't help but inject his faith into conversations with veterans, even those who have lost some of theirs. "I believe in the power of prayer," Harden said. "We'll sit down and read a couple of Bible scriptures together, just to give them a peace of mind. Their soul may be hurting."

The program, funded by a grant from the VA's Office of Rural health, includes 15 employees and cost $336,000 to run this year. The program makes inclusiveness of all faiths a central tenant. Sullivan believes it promotes sensitivity to spirituality regardless of religion, which in turn leads to what he called "cultural competence" that helps mental health professionals better do their jobs.

"We're learning all about ethnic and racial competence and studying these dynamics that are very different for patients. From a cultural or ethnic standpoint, we need to treat spirituality in that same vein, as saying this person's church culture is as important to them as the fact that they're black or white or upper middle class."

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