Mental health for vets: 'we beat the bushes, but they don't come out'

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KBAK/KBFX) The shooting incident at Fort Hood in Texas again raises questions about mental health resources for military personnel.

In Kern County, experts say there are adequate services for local veterans. The challenge is getting those vets to ask for help.

"We do have enough," Bakersfield Vet Center Director Joe Acosta told Eyewitness News on Thursday. "We're just not reaching (the vets), we beat the bushes, but they don't come out."

He said agencies like his need to find more ways to find the people who need help.

Late on Thursday, the general in charge of the Army's Fort Hood said the soldier who killed three people before committing suicide could have had a "verbal altercation" before the shooting.

And, the post commander reported there was evidence Spc. Ivan Lopez was psychologically unstable. Military officials had also reported Lopez got help for depression and anxiety and was being evaluated for post-traumatic stress disorder.

"I heard he was being screened for anxiety and depression," J.R. Browning said.

Browning helps facilitate a support group at the Bakersfield Vet Center. He called mental health issues a growing problem in the military, but he thinks there is more awareness of the issue, which is a good thing.

"But, still for some reason, we miss certain people," Browning said. "And, this may be a case of that."

Browning believes the military has good screening, but too many military personnel don't get that help because of a stigma associated with mental health problems.

"We're heroes to a lot of people, so you don't want to puncture that," he said. "You don't want to do any damage to the image of the heroic man coming home from war."

Vet center director Acosta sees another hurdle. He said the military now has a "unique" population, with very young vets who are busy with families and getting careers started, and they may not take the time to reach out for help.

Acosta said some may turn to substance abuse, and that makes things worse.

But, for those who will ask, the help is here. Acosta said at his center, 1,600 vets have applied for counseling. He said that counseling is free, and there's also free counseling for military members at the Veterans' Administration outpatient clinic in Bakersfield.

At the Kern County Veterans Service Department, Director Dick Taylor told Eyewitness News his office has a full referral service that includes mental health resources.

And, the California National Guard also has mental health assistance for local vets. Capt. Dustin Harris said his agency has seven full-time behavioral health officers who are licensed social workers or psychologists. Harris said they provide consultation and referral.

The officers find the right resources and help the soldier connect to them. And, his office provided help to 1,000 soldiers last year.

But, Harris also worries the stigma of asking for mental health help may hold soldiers back from seeking assistance. He insisted that will no longer "ruin a career."

Harris said National Guard personnel and their families in the Kern County area can reach officers by calling (559) 341-9001 or (805) 540-4460.

From the Bakersfield Vet Center, Director Acosta also stressed the importance of friends and family reaching out. He said they may spot "different behavior" in a service member or vet, and help start the process of getting them to help.

"Knowledge is power," Acosta said. "If we let (the veterans) know services are available, we're doing our job."

At the Kern County Veterans Service Office, Taylor said their assistance can be reached by calling (661) 868-7300. He also recommends the Veterans Crisis Line as a resource. That number is (800) 273-8255, and it's available for completely confidential help 24 hours a day.

The number at the Bakersfield Vet Center is (661) 323-8387. That's where Browning runs the "Frontline" support group, with help from the Bakersfield chapter of the National Association on Mental Health. The groups meet at the Center at 1110 Golden State Ave. on the first and third Thursdays of the month.

"It's a mixture of emotional support, social support, and some of it's just wisdom," Browning said about Frontline group. And, it's open to vets and their family members.

But, he says the stigma of asking for help is a big hurdle for military members and vets. Asked how to deal with that?

"One person at a time, honestly," he responded. And to make that happen, he says vets and military members have to be honest with themselves.

"If you need help, if you find yourself questioning whether or not you need help," Browning said. "Let someone who knows about these things tell you whether or not you need help."