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A Message for Military Veterans from NIMH's Dr. Robert Heinssen

National Institute of Mental Health


Dr. Robert Heinssen: In 2004 I joined the reserve component of the United States Army. I’m a Major in the Maryland Army National Guard. I’m a section leader for a mental health section in a medical company. And for eight years I’ve had the opportunity to work with these young men and women in the Maryland National Guard who have served in Kosovo…in Iraq and Afghanistan. And in 2010 I had the opportunity to be deployed myself.

I spent several months in Afghanistan as part of the Army’s Joint Mental Health Advisory Team...so I had a chance to be with active duty National Guard soldiers and Marines in several locations in Afghanistan as part of that. So, my work at NIMH has led me to study these problems, these population health problems - PTSD, depression - the challenges of reintegrating into civilian society after the experience of war. So, on the professional, scientific side I had that focus through the last eight years.

The experience of war – exposure to war - is, it’s an experience that touches everyone - transforms their lives.

For some individuals, this manifest itself in psychological consequences. Post traumatic stress injury, depression or maybe turning to alcohol and substances to help with managing the emotions that come up.

Turns out about 17-percent of the 2.7-million Americans that have served in either Iraq or Afghanistan are going to experience problems like that. And NIMH, the military, the Veterans Administration have really made a point of being very open about that information because we know that today in contrast to the situation after World War II or Korea or Vietnam- that we have treatments for these things - we have treatments for PTSD and depression.

We have ways - strategies of helping people with… who may be relying too much on alcohol or substances. And if we can have people recognize when they’re having difficulty and seek treatment early, we can expect very good outcomes.

Dr. Robert Heinssen: We’ve neglected to talk about the other 83-percent of individuals who come through this experience. And they too will have - it will leave its mark on them - that’s clear.

It doesn’t leave anyone untouched. But in that group, they’ve acquired skills - they’ve learned something about themselves in terms of their own individual resilience. They’ve learned something about working in close teams to accomplish very difficult objectives.

This is the foundation of a very resourceful, resilient population that really is a treasure for the nation. You know, when we think back after World War II, the nation felt tremendous gratitude to all of the service members who participated in that conflict. And the nation decided that they were going to invest in that generation.

So, the G.I. Bill came into existence and veterans utilized that resource in tremendous numbers. They went back to school, they got training and in the decades after World War II that was the generation that transformed America. Our current generation of veterans are following in the footsteps of their grandfathers and uncles. They too are using the benefits that have been made available to them. And I don’t think there is any reason to expect the results will be any different with this generation. I think that they will, you know, they will marry the experiences that they had in war - the things that they have learned about themselves in terms of their character, their effectiveness, their resilience, with education and training that will be applicable to the civilian workforce.

Dr. Robert Heinssen: In this perspective, we don’t want to lose sight of individuals who may struggle and need help. We have an obligation to give them that help. And we have tools that can help them. But we also need to communicate to the nation as a whole that this population, for the most part, will be coming back with experiences and skills and perspectives and learning that are tremendous assets.

That’s part of the full story to communicate on Veterans Day - to celebrate their service and to celebrate the gifts they will give us indeed for years to come.

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