Vets seek in-person mental health care

Dennis Storey, left, of the Village of Hadley and commander of the Disabled American Veterans Chapter 150, and Conrad Fischer, of the Village of Collier and president of the Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 1036, are involved in an effort to provide new mental health services for veterans.

The pandemic has afflicted certain groups — students of all ages, people who lost jobs, essential workers — with adverse psychological effects, some mental health professionals say. And military veterans have been there as well. The VA’s mental health unit at The Villages’ outpatient clinic was seeing 200 vets a week as the pandemic reached its worst, according to the North Florida/South Georgia Veterans Health System, a Gainesville-based unit of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. That care was delivered virtually. But some local veterans’ advocates say virtual care is often unsuitable for many of the psychological issues affecting former military personnel.

“It’s a great thought,” said Conrad Fischer, president of the Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 1036 in The Villages.

“However, do you want to see 80-year-old men doing Zoom? Some of them can’t even see the keyboard.”

Fischer, of the Village of Collier, and others agree that in-person services need to be readily accessible.

To help local veterans, especially those who have served in combat, the activists seek a permanent presence for mental health services within The Villages. They want a location staffed during regular hours, at a spot that is golf cart-accessible.

They have a model.

Fischer said the Vet Center, a VA-sponsored clinic in Ocala, specializes in providing combat veterans counseling and therapy, sometimes in unique ways such as by using horses. Better yet, the agency is interested in setting up shop within The Villages.

The hurdle is that the search for a location has been fruitless so far, Fischer added.

Fischer, an Air Force veteran who served in Da Nang, South Vietnam, during the Tet Offensive launched by the North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong guerillas in 1968, said he thinks every vet who has seen combat has some level of post-traumatic stress disorder.

“There is a very large need,” said Fischer. “To make guys in their 80s drive to Ocala is not a smart thing to do.”

The VA points out on its website that PTSD can haunt some older veterans 50 years after their wartime service.

The psychological effects of combat-related PTSD, even delayed into later life, can produce nightmares, feelings that the victims are reliving the event, urges to avoid situations that may revive those memories, instances of being easily startled, and a loss of interest in activities.

According to the VA, PTSD may heighten with age for several reasons.

Being retired may make symptoms worse. Those veterans have more time to think about that moment of their lives and fewer things to distract them.

Medical issues and feelings that their youthful strength is draining away also can invite those symptoms. Video scenes of current wars or other related television news can resuscitate those memories.

Veterans who have sought escape from the stress with booze or drugs can experience worse PTSD symptoms if they stop those habits without developing a healthier alternative to coping.

Walter Penk, a clinical psychologist who works as a consultant to the VA, specializes in treating veterans with PTSD and has worked at several VA hospitals in his career. Age makes a difference for most veterans in this situation and can complicate demands for adjustment as they get older.

“But, like life for all of us, each one of them differs from others. So, it’s usually better to consult with a clinician who is able to address complications that collect for each person as an individual,” said Penk, who retired last year from Texas A&M’s medical school. “Do not confuse one veteran with another. Veterans need to flourish as individuals.

“It’s complicated, but older veterans with PTSD will need different interventions than younger veterans,” he added. “The major intervention to practice is it is never too late to keep on learning and develop new skills, in keeping with each veteran’s interests and personal uniqueness.”

Penk added that his personal opinion is that person-to-person counseling is better than virtual sessions, although reviews among mental health professionals differ on this issue.

VA spokeswoman Melanie Thomas noted that the agency’s mental health clinic in The Villages is “fully operational.”

The office is open from 7:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Monday through Friday, and accepts veterans with scheduled appointments or walk-ins, she said.

“A wide variety of services in general psychiatry and psychotherapy are provided, as well as programs specializing in substance abuse and post-traumatic stress disorder,” Thomas said.

“Additionally, we are fully staffed, providing in-person services, as well as virtual care through VA video conferencing and telehealth.”

She added that each patient is given an opportunity to choose the time, date, and type of appointment they feel most comfortable attending.

Since 2018, three providers have transferred to new positions or retired from federal service, she said.

“We understand the difficult adjustment that our veterans have to make when employees advance their careers, relocate, or retire,” Thomas said.

But, Thomas added, veterans centers, such as the one in Ocala, help fill the gap.

The centers, Thomas said, “provide an invaluable service by providing exclusive care to some of our most vulnerable combat veterans.”

As an offset, Thomas noted, VA staffers in The Villages collaborate with counterparts at the Veterans Center, providing office space so counselors from the center can see veterans here. The clinic also allots space for the Vet Center’s mobile unit to set up in its parking lot.

The clinic “remains vigilant in making sure that all veterans in our area have access to mental health care,” she said.

Fischer and others want an alternative here: a space that can facilitate one-on-one sessions or small groups of up to 15, Fischer said.

Dennis Storey, commander of the Disabled American Veterans Chapter 150  in The Villages, said the VA’s outpatient clinic is “very well staffed and very well run,” said Storey, of the Village of Hadley, it still is not as helpful as a separate facility within The Villages would be.

The Vet Center can help “get to the bottom” of stressors, whether PTSD or other effects of war.

Yet, he added, “a lot of vets don’t want to come into the clinic because they don’t want the stigma” of being seen visiting its mental health unit.

“If we had something else, it would alleviate the stigma of coming into the clinic.”

Staff Writer Bill Thompson can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5228, or william.thompson@thevillagesmedia.com.