When it comes to the conversation surrounding mental health in the United States, the needs of veterans are treated differently then the general population due to the unique and complex needs of those who served, especially those who experienced life-or-death combat situations.
According to a 2015 article from the Advances in Medical Education and Practice journal, “Veterans experience mental health disorders, substance use disorders, post-traumatic stress, and traumatic brain injury at disproportionate rates compared to their civilian counterparts.”
Despite this, studies reveal that a significant number of veterans do not receive the mental health treatment they need. For instance, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration reports that “approximately 50 percent of returning service members who need treatment for mental health seek it, but only slightly more than half who receive treatment receive adequate care.”
According to the National Veterans Foundation, reasons for this lack of care range from personal embarrassment and a fear of being perceived as weak to a lack of understanding regarding treatment options, long waiting periods, and concerns over the quality of treatment provided by Veterans Affairs (VA).
With this existing gap in treatment, nonprofit organizations play a significant role in providing veterans with needed services. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Greenville, which strives “to improve the quality of life and treatment for those who suffer from mental illness and their family members through education, support, and advocacy,” offers a support group specifically for veterans and active duty service members. The group meets at the Greenville VA Outpatient Clinic on the first and third Wednesdays of each month.
By design, both attendees and those facilitating the support group are either current or former service members. “There’s just a lot that is involved in military culture, and it was important for the leaders to have a really good understanding of what their group members have gone through,” says Danielle Ellis, program coordinator at NAMI Greenville.
The group provides veterans with an opportunity to access support, get connected to various resources, and “talk about the present issues in the lives,” Ellis says. While facilitators are not licensed mental health professionals, NAMI Greenville provides training and guidelines for conducting the group.
Wilbert Norman and Harvey Craig are volunteer facilitators, and both men are former sergeants in the Army. Norman served from 1964 to May 1967 and was stationed in Vietnam from June 1966 to February 1967. Craig served from 1966 to 1975 and also fought in Vietnam, receiving two Purple Hearts.
For Norman, the value of the support group is tied to being able to relate to veterans and their experiences. “I think the biggest benefit is having your story told and having somebody listen to it,” he says.
“It’s helping and being a Christian — that’s what we want to do for others,” he adds. “It helps me to keep my mind off of my own problems, helping someone else. It’s rewarding seeing them get the help that they have earned.”
Craig’s choice to be involved in the support group is partly rooted in his own post-military experience. His service ended with a medical discharge, and he turned to alcohol and drugs to cope with undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). After two decades, he got the treatment he needed to manage his symptoms. He has been sober since 2003.
“It took me years to get where I’m at now,” Craig says. “I didn’t want anyone else to go through what I went through, so I wanted to help other veterans.”
“It took me years to get where I’m at now. I didn’t want anyone else to go through what I went through, so I wanted to help other veterans.” –Harvey Craig
Craig’s story is not uncommon among Vietnam veterans. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, approximately 30 percent of Vietnam veterans “have had PTSD in their lifetime.” The National Vietnam Veterans’ Readjustment Study, completed in the 1980s, reported that alcohol abuse and dependence were the most prevalent lifetime disorders among Vietnam veterans. In a 2003 reanalysis of the study, researchers found that 4 out of 5 Vietnam veterans reported lingering PTSD symptoms over two decades after the war ended.
For Craig, the support group provides veterans with “a place to come unload so they’re not carrying things from one week to the next.” Being able to talk freely with fellow veterans, he says, “makes a world of difference.”
Group attendee Joseph Sligh served in Vietnam from 1966 to 1968 as a specialist in the Army. “A lot of the guys have the same problems you have. There’s good camaraderie. It makes you feel better when you go,” he says. “Mostly [we talk] about our lives and how it is now and how it was then and things like that.”
James Neely, who served as a private first class in the Army from June 1964 to June 1967 and also fought in Vietnam, says the support group helped him connect with a caseworker and later see a psychiatrist. In 2016, Neely was formally diagnosed with PTSD.
“I was a combat veteran, so I experienced a lot, whether it was flying or things exploding around me. … It took me some 50 years to come to realize I had a different disposition,” he says. “After a period of time, things began to be not so pleasant with people around me. I guess I was hurting and didn’t know it.”
Regarding the support group, he adds, “It helped me realize that I wasn’t alone and there were other veterans going through it. It was beneficial for me to talk to someone that could relate to what was happening.”
“I just think NAMI is a great source for people that are willing to listen to a facilitator. The key factor is getting them to come and seeing whether they can benefit,” Craig says. “A lot look for a quick fix, so the key is trying to keep them there and convince them that it’s helping, and help them feel like they’re part of something.”