Tackling stigma of mental health an ongoing battle for Kansas veterans’ health care groups

By: - June 8, 2022 10:41 am

Matt Naylor, president of the National World War I Museum and Memorial, said about 140 veterans take their lives each week under the stress of traumatic fallout from time spent on active duty. (Screen capture of University of Kansas Health System YouTube channel)

TOPEKA — Last week, 140 flags were on display at the National World War I Museum and Memorial, representing the number of veterans who take their lives each week.

Addressing and ensuring access to care for the more than 175,000 Kansas veterans benefits the community at large, not just those struggling with trauma from war, said Matt Naylor, president of the museum and memorial. Health care providers and veteran services advocates such as Naylor say public awareness of the mental and physical effects that linger after the battles are fought is becoming more common. That means a growing focus on this area.

“We know around about 20 veterans or active-duty personnel take their lives each day, and that was true during World War I as well, when we didn’t really understand how to treat shellshock,” Naylor said, adding that now providers understand shellshock to be post-traumatic stress disorder. “The impact though, on families, on communities, on economies, is enormous.”

Naylor was joined Monday by representatives of a veterans’ healing group and the University of Kansas Health System to discuss how the state responds to the needs of its warfighters. One major issue discussed is finding access to providers who understand the issues that veterans face in their day-to-day lives.

Only about 50% of the roughly 18 million veterans nationwide receive care through a veterans’ hospital. The rest depend on the same health systems and networks as anyone else, said Nicole Yedlinsky, a family physician for KU Health System and a veteran.

Yedlinsky, who was on active duty for seven years, followed by eight years working in the military medical system, said progress is being made in filling gaps that veterans’ hospitals cannot fill.

“There’s a much bigger awareness of those mental health issues that veterans face, especially as they transition out of the service, and also that connectedness and the importance of community involvement,” Yedlinsky said.

One aid available to all veterans working in the health system is the Veterans Resource Group. It has worked to repair homes for veterans and provide needed medical equipment to veteran’s organizations that need it.

The Battle Within, an Olathe-based organization created by more than 100 veterans, first responders and other community members, is also working to break down barriers to care and ensure veterans have a chance to heal. A primary focus is reducing the stigma of mental health, said Adam Magers, the clinical director for The Battle Within. This includes connecting veterans with therapists and other mental health care providers.

Magers said psychotherapy is effective for the treatment of PTSD and encouraged veterans to seek the help they need. He also told anyone hoping to help a veteran should approach them with openness and authenticity.

“Having a traumatic reaction to something like war is normal,” Magers said. He added that “the best thing that we can do when we’re speaking with somebody who’s experienced something traumatic is just make it safe for them to share their experience, and to be honest about how they’re feeling, without having anybody shame them.”

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Noah Taborda
Noah Taborda

Noah Taborda started his journalism career in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Missouri, covering local government and producing an episode of the podcast Show Me The State while earning his bachelor’s degree in radio broadcasting at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. Noah then made a short move to Kansas City, Missouri, to work at KCUR as an intern on the talk show Central Standard and then in the newsroom, reporting on daily news and feature stories.

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