August 9, 2008

Iraq, Afghanistan Veterans Sought for Stress Research

By Michael Cope

Veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq battling symptoms of post-traumatic stress syndrome are needed for a behavioral study at Highlands Hospital in Connellsville.

Washington & Jefferson College is using funds from the Department of Defense to examine how rural veterans and their loved ones combat post-traumatic stress.

The study also is being conducted at Conemaugh Valley Memorial Hospital in Johnstown.

"This group of veterans may face obstacles readjusting to civilian life that no organization is yet recognizing or addressing," said Michael Crabtree, professor of psychology at Washington & Jefferson and principal investigator.

In addition to the issues service members face, their families have difficulties adjusting, too.

"Highlands got involved in the research project because we wanted to determine what services are needed by returning military in a rural community, and then to provide the services needed in the best possible manner," hospital CEO Michelle Cunningham said.

One of the keys to understanding and helping veterans is listening to what they and their families have to say, Crabtree said.

"We want to make sure these young men and women get the help they need, and continue their military career if they so desire, so that combat stress does not affect the rest of their lives," he said. "The good news is that there is a better attitude and less of a stigma surrounding post-traumatic stress syndrome. It is important that we do what we can to find help for people who come home from military experience."

Highlands is sponsoring focus groups where veterans and family members can share thoughts and opinions. Program officials are looking for adult family members or significant others of service members, regardless of branch, who participated in Operation Iraqi Freedom or Operation Enduring Freedom.

The goal of the focus groups is to identify barriers to receiving care for combat-related stress. The focus groups are anonymous, confidential and voluntary. To check eligibility, session times, locations and dates, call 724-317-4811.

"We serve our community by providing emergency services, inpatient and outpatient behavioral health services," Cunningham said. "Comments made and information received at the focus groups will help structure future programs and education needed to better serve our returning military."

A number of focus groups have been held for the study and are producing useful information, said Elizabeth Bennett, co-principal investigator.

"The opinions and information being shared by participants is invaluable in helping us understand the challenges their loved ones are facing," Bennett said. "The goal is to help service members and their families, and it all starts by talking. We are listening."

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