On Monday, the private Palo Alto University held a virtual event to discuss how veterans can seek mental health counseling and what family members can also do to support them.
Acknowledging the troubling suicide rates among veterans, Kristen Vescera, a clinical psychologist and combat veteran who was deployed to Afghanistan in 2012, said in the panel discussion that one of the biggest challenges for veterans is assimilating back to normal life.
"Often there can be a disconnect between veterans and civilians," Vescera said. "(Veterans) might feel misunderstood when trying to communicate."
Vescera spoke of her past experiences talking with her parents while she was deployed and how she became increasingly distant from her family whenever they saw each other.
"When I was home, I was not so pleasant," she said.
According to Josef Ruzek, the moderator of Monday's panel, another challenge is the ability to seek mental health counseling, which can stem from the practical barriers — such as being able to navigate the health care system or take time off work to seek help — as well as mental barriers.
"It's hard for a lot of people, especially veterans, to believe that mental health counseling can actually help," said Ruzek, founding director of the university's Early Intervention research clinic who also specializes in treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder, PTSD. "People don't have much idea of mental health counseling."
Though there's less stigma around seeking support these days, Vescera said that the military culture, which emphasizes strength, often still leads veterans to misconstrue the acknowledgment of mental health problems as a sign of weakness.
Family members play a critical role in helping veterans seek help.
"One of the biggest motivators for veterans is to repair life with their families," Ruzek said.
Vescera offered a few pointers for families on how to approach the issue with their veterans: Do be yourself and be genuine; remain calm when listening to a veteran's experiences; listen without judgment; and stay positive, which does not necessarily translate to overenthusiasm but rather reassuring the person that help is available.
Ashlynn Steinbaugh, who also spoke on Monday's panel as a graduate student at Palo Alto University and as a daughter of a veteran father, said that it's important for families to "talk early, and talk often."
"If you notice something that kind of seems out of the usual or they're not acting right ... talk about it and try to figure out how to start these conversations," Steinbaugh said.
Vescera also pointed to a few "don'ts" with respect to those family conversations: Don't argue; don't agree to confidentiality if you can't keep the promise; don't blame yourself; and don't give lectures or speeches on the value of life or being more grateful — it could make the veteran feel guilty, Vescera said.
"The only person you're in control of is yourself, and that's the same way with the veteran," she said.
Ruzek also recognized that it's important that each family member's mental well-being is also in check.
"It's important to remember that if you want to be the most constructive part of that person's future or that person's recovery ... it's going to be necessary for you to manage and take care of your own well-being," he said.
The panel discussion was part of the school's larger webinar series, "At the Forefront of Mental Health."
View the full seminar:
Any person who is feeling depressed, troubled or suicidal can call 800-784-2433 to speak with a crisis counselor. People in Santa Clara County can call 855-278-4204. Spanish speakers can call 888-628-9454.
People can reach trained counselors at Crisis Text Line by texting RENEW to 741741.
Read more: How to help those in crisis