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Still difficult for PTSD victims to get help

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It’s been more than three decades since post-traumatic stress disorder was recognized as a distinct medical diagnosis by the medical community and the federal government, but many veterans dealing with PTSD are still having trouble getting effective treatment.

That was the apparent consensus reached Monday morning by about 75 veterans, their relatives and medical professionals attending a “town hall” on PTSD held at American Legion Post 13 in Albuquerque.

The event, hosted by U.S. Reps. Steve Pearce, R-N.M., and Michelle Lujan Grisham, D-N.M., included presentations by New Mexico VA Health Care System Director George Marnell – who gave updates on efforts to expand access to VA facilities – and Diane Castillo, who researches and treats PTSD at the Raymond G. Murphy VA Medical Center.

Marnell said although federal “sequestration” budget cuts and ongoing funding talks in Congress have affected nearly all federal agencies, the VA has been spared.

“Veteran care is not impacted by either of those,” Marnell said – a declaration that received applause.

Castillo, who has been involved in PTSD treatment since 1987, said two types of therapy – prolonged exposure and cognitive processing – have been successful in treating PTSD. Alternative therapies, ranging from acupuncture to meditation, are most effective when coupled with those therapies, she said.

But many veterans run into roadblocks when seeking treatment, according to several people who spoke during a question-and-answer session.

Dan Marker, who retired from the Air Force prior to 9/11, said his son was diagnosed with PTSD after serving as a Navy medic in Afghanistan. But his symptoms made it impossible for him to deal with the bureaucracy at the VA.

Presenters noted that the VA is only one way, though the most common, to access PTSD treatment. Crisis hot lines – such as that operated by New Mexico Behavioral Health Services – can direct people to initial treatment outside the VA. That number is 1-855-662-7474.

Pete Comstock, with the New Mexico chapter of the Military Order of the Purple Heart, urged Marker to direct his son to that organization’s mentorship program, which partners new veterans with other veterans who can help steer them toward appropriate resources. Comstock can be reached at 270-4689.

New Mexico Department of Veterans’ Services Secretary Tim Hale said new veterans can receive up to a year of free, and nearly immediate, counseling from about 500 volunteer counselors statewide by visiting http://bhsdstar.org/Veterans.aspx or by calling 1-(888) 920-6333.

Though from different sides of the aisle, Pearce and Grisham agreed that a coordinated effort involving all levels of government is needed to get veterans and families affected by PTSD the services they need quickly and effectively.

Monday’s town hall was one step toward doing that, Pearce said.

Lujan Grisham said government is not doing enough to reach out to veterans dealing with PTSD and that budget cuts are no excuse for not doing so.

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