Coming All The Way Home

Imagine being 20-something in a combat zone, surrounded by peers who understand exactly what you go through day in and day out. The weight of the uniform, the letters from home . . . the nightmares, the fear and the anxiety. Now imagine coming home . A person once worried about making it through each day begins worrying about finding a job, paying bills and reconnecting with loved ones. All external aspects of life transition might go back to normal, but is it that easy on the mind?

military picIn many cases the answer is no.

“A 2012 study by the Veterans Administration found that nearly 30 percent of vets who served in Iraq and Afghanistan have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD,” said Dr. Stacey Manser, from the Texas Institute for Excellence in Mental Health (TIEMH) at The University of Texas at Austin School of Social Work. “And this can have serious consequences for their civilian life. In Travis County, Constable Maria Canchola reports that an average of 150 veterans are arrested each month, and most of them are dealing with alcohol or substance use issues.”

Manser is the lead evaluator of Jail Diversion and Trauma Recovery (JDTR), a program from the Texas Department of State Health Services that develops local infrastructure to divert veterans with mental health or substance abuse issues from the criminal justice system, and provides them with evidence-based trauma treatment and other services such as substance use counseling and housing.

“A key component of JDTR are the Veteran’s Courts, specific court divisions designed for veterans who are charged with non-violent misdemeanor offenses that may be related to PTSD,” explained Manser. “These courts divert veterans from the criminal justice system and instead focus on treatment for substance abuse and mental health needs.”

In 2010, Travis County had its first docket for Veteran’s Court. Veterans enrolled in the courts must have a PTSD diagnosis, traumatic brain injury or other mental health diagnoses related to deployment. Using a team approach, veterans work with members from Veterans Administration, local non-profits, the county District Attorney Office and the judge to fight the battle here at home: their mental health needs.

Judge Michael Denton

Judge Michael Denton

“It’s a way to help someone come home,” said Judge Michael Denton, a veteran and graduate of West Point who serves as presiding judge of the Travis County Veteran’s Court. “It’s a way for someone to come all the way home.”

“It’s a treatment court so we’re able to use all the resources we have to help them get back on track through proper treatment,” Jackson Glass, the Travis County Veteran’s Court Program Administrator, said. “Treatment for trauma and substance abuse is difficult because it forces the veterans to deal with painful memories they’d rather not deal with. We’re able to require them to stick with treatment and complete it where in many cases they probably wouldn’t do that on their own.”

Glass said trauma can be especially harmful if it occurs before the brain has completely matured. In most military cases, soldiers are deployed young. The trauma affects their thoughts and many soldiers self-medicate in an attempt to alleviate their burdens.

“I’m really touched on a daily basis,” Glass said. “The most rewarding part about Veteran’s Courts is being able to provide some support to veterans who lose their support system when they leave the military and have difficulty reintegrating into the community. It gives them hope because many feel like they are broken and there’s no way they’ll ever return to a sense of normalcy.”

Hope for HeroesCommunity mental health centers, also referred to as Local Mental Health Authorities (LMHAs) across Texas are finding ways to serve veterans, often in conjunction with Veteran’s Courts. Austin-Travis County Integral Care, the LMHA in Travis County, has a program called Hope for Heroes, which provides counseling, integrative medicine and peer support to veterans.

Lee Cavender, a Licensed Master Social Worker and UT graduate who works with veterans at the Samaritan Center through Hope for Heroes, said reintegration can be a problem unique to working with a veteran population. Another problem is the stigma associated with seeking mental health services.

“Most of the clients I see are referred through the courts. Several members say they wish they would have sought treatment much sooner, but didn’t because it was difficult admitting they needed help to work through substance abuse issues or PTSD symptoms,” Cavender said.

This Veteran’s Day, the Travis County Veteran’s Court is celebrating its third year. Glass said that the court has had 125 veterans enrolled in the program. Currently 66 veterans are active in the courts, and 44 vets have graduated. Of the 44 graduates, only one has been rearrested.

“I’m a criminal judge so a lot of what I see is not very upbeat, but every time I leave the Veteran’s Court I feel really good as you see these young veterans really making progress and putting their life back together,” Judge Denton said.

One notable success story is David Brown, a Vietnam vet who lived with PTSD for 40 years before seeking help. After enrolling in a Veteran’s Court he began treatment for his substance abuse and PTSD, and has found a new sense of pride and self-worth. Read about his story in the Austin-American Statesman.

“The results are very promising,” Manser said. “The veterans participating in the JDTR pilot located at the Center for Hope in San Antonio have demonstrated significant reduction in trauma symptoms and involvement with the criminal justice system, and significant improvements in housing, employment, and social connections.”

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Posted November 11, 2013