Mental-health workers answer call to provide free services to vets and families
St. Louis therapist Charli Prather believes she has found a meaningful way to serve her country: She’s signed up with the national nonprofit Give An Hour, a network of mental-health professionals who offer confidential services, free of charge, to veterans, current members of the U.S. military and their loved ones.
Prather is one of about 50 area providers who have enrolled in the program, and she’s trying to spread the word that Give An Hour is an option for military men and women who prefer to visit a private office for counseling, rather than on base or at their local VA.
Prather, a licensed clinical social worker and trained psychotherapist who has worked in oncology and hospice work, said she recently completed 40 hours of continuing education training through the Center for Deployment Psychology in Bethesda, Md. She is prepared to work with clients dealing with psychological effects related to their military service, such as sleep disturbances, post-traumatic stress disorder and the emotional challenges of multiple deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan.
"I am ready, willing and able,’’ said Prather, 50, who proudly wears both a U.S. Air Force pin and a Blue Star designating her as the mother of a service member. Her son Charles Alexander Palmer, 27, a 2004 Clayton High School graduate, is a senior airman on continuous deployment in Afghanistan.
Prather writes about the stresses and concerns she has about her son’s deployment at her MilitaryZenMom blog. She said that she benefits from “getting off my tuckus” and volunteering her time to support military members.
"It keeps me from ruminating on the fact that my son is there,’’ she said. “As a mother I can’t protect him anymore. He’s 27 years old. I can send him care packages, and when he comes home to visit I can set him up with a personal trainer. I can meditate with him. But I can’t protect him.’’
'Such a need'
Prather stressed that not everyone who serves in Iraq or Afghanistan returns home with PTSD, but a significant number experience depression and anxiety -- normal reactions to serving in war zones. The issues can become disabling if not addressed.
Give An Hour is a national network of mental health professionals who offer free confidential services to veterans, current members of the U.S. military and their loved ones. Providers are available in all 50 states, plus Washington D.C., Puerto Rico and Guam.
To find a provider, visit the website: www.giveanhour.orgOr phone: 866-640-6397
"They come home and get jobs and join great organizations, but they’re affected and changed and communities might need to help with their transitions,’’ she said.
Prather said that Give An Hour offers her the opportunity to use her professional experience to support the small percentage of the U.S. population -- just 1 percent -- serving in the military.
Nancy St. Claire, chief operating officer of Give An Hour, said the organization has enlisted 6,300 mental-health professionals nationwide since it was founded in 2005 by Barbara Van Dahlen, a clinical psychologist who practices in the Washington area.
The Give An Hour website features a locator that uses zip codes to match prospective clients with nearby professionals. Clients who receive an hour of free counseling are encouraged to give an hour of their time volunteering in their communities.
The program strives to increase access to therapy and raise awareness about mental-health issues affecting service members and their families, St. Claire said.
"It’s really meant to supplement what is already out there. There’s such a need that there is no one organization that can fulfill all the mental-health needs. It’s something that’s extra and added for people to utilize,’’ St. Claire said. “And unlike going through the military or VA our providers do not have to report clinical records. That can be enticing to some people who don’t want to have it on their records.’’
Volunteers run the gamut, she said, and include licensed psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, professional counselors, faith-based pastoral counselors, marriage and family therapists, psychiatric nurses and substance abuse counselors.
St. Claire said that clients include active duty military, veterans, retired military, National Guard and Reserve members and “anybody who loves a service member who was affected by Iraq and Afghanistan.” The organization estimates that its network has given 46,000 hours of free services worth $4.6 million since July 2007 when it began providing services.
Stresses of deployment
In a June blog entry titled “Olives and Fathers Day,” Prather discussed the emotional stresses of having a son on continuous deployment; he is permanently based in Afghanistan and gets only short leaves stateside:
"People look at me like I have three heads when I try to explain to them that his work requires him to be there continuously and that he feels compelled to DO the work,’’ she wrote. "The work matters. It makes a difference that he’s there. I thought about deployment when he enlisted, knew it was the reality of this life. I must admit I didn’t expect to endure deployment over and over again. I wonder how his body will continue to hold up under the physical and emotional toll that these deployments take on a human being. I worry about cancer from the chemicals and the exposure to the elements. I worry about crashes on the ground and in the air. I worry about his nutrition, his emotions and most of all I worry that he’ll not a find a good woman who understands his lifestyle in the military to share his life with.’’
In addition to Give An Hour, Prather is hoping to use her personal experience as the mom of an active duty serviceman to start a support group called Hearts Apart for parents and grandparents coping with deployment. Until she finds a funding source, she plans to charge a sliding scale fee of $5 to $20 a family. A second support group called Blue Star Parents would be open to parents and grandparents of military personnel who are making the transition back to civilian life.
Prather said her "biggest regret” is that she did not enlist 15 years ago when she was looking for new career opportunities. She recently approached the branches of the military about joining but found that she did not qualify, even though age restrictions have been relaxed in recent years.
"At 35, I wanted to join for financial security. At 50 I wanted to do it because only 1 percent of the population is serving, and I thought maybe a young mom wouldn’t have to go fight,’’ she said.