Suffolk County helping veterans with PTSD

“[He was] crying on the floor one minute and breaking the T.V. set the next.”

Sean LaPersonerie, an Iraq War veteran from Suffolk County, suffered from extreme post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), traumatic brain injury (TBI) and struggled with fluctuating bouts of emotion after returning home in 2010.

“One day he was walking the streets of Iraq and the next day he was walking the streets of Copiague,” says Lauren Van Kirk, a childhood friend of LaPersonerie’s mother, Marie LaPersonerie. After being honorably discharged from the military in Dec. 2010, Sean struggled to find normalcy, but ultimately decided to seek treatment for his condition.

“So, it was New Year’s Eve of 2011, just around the time when Sean really kind of figured out ‘I kind of have to get my act together here. ‘He was having dinner with his girlfriend in Babylon Village, walked across the street, got hit by a car and died a few days later,” said Van Kirk. There is no connection between Sean’s PTSD and the accident.

As of Sept. 30, 2013, statistics compiled by the U.S. Department Veterans Affairs (VA) show approximately 76,577 veterans living in Suffolk County, the largest veteran population in New York. An undocumented number of those veterans suffer from PTSD but many are reluctant to seek treatment because of the stigma the disorder carries.

Fighting the stigma

According to Dr. Charlene Thomesen, associate chief of staff of mental health at the Northport Veterans Affairs Medical Center, the VA has provided enough funds for every facility around the country to have a lead coordinator to combat PTSD stigma. “The job of a recovery coordinator is to work with all our veterans to decrease stigma,” says Thomesen, who also serves as chief of psychiatry.

The Walter Reed Army Institute of Research Land Combat Study in 2004  examined mental health problems among soldiers as well as barriers to providing care. It reveals that one of the key reasons combat soldiers are reluctant to seek medical help for PTSD is their general lack of trust for mental health professionals.

“The Northport VA Medical Center has been especially active in the Long Island community to engage veterans coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan,” said Joe Sledge, a public affairs officer at the center. “I’m proud to say that of the 4,600 veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan and that live in Nassau and Suffolk Counties … anywhere from 1,500 to 2,000 use us each year for medical care.”

Veterans Day Parade, New York City, 2011

Veterans Day Parade, New York City, 2011
LIR Photo Credit: Flickr

According to the Epidemiology Program, a research division of the VA’s Office of Public Health, a revised quarterly report indicates that about 137 veterans with potential PTSD have used the Northport Veterans Affairs Medical Center from 2002-2012.

The media continues to fuel the public’s misconceptions that all PTSD sufferers are dangerous yet seldom offer substantial evidence to support their claims. In truth, veterans who suffer from PTSD are no more violent than individuals without it. In a phone interview, Dr. Mayer Bellehsen, director of the Mildred and Frank Feinberg Division of the Unified Behavioral Health Center at North Shore LIJ, says that violence is not a core symptom of PTSD.

The U.S. Army requested that the American Psychiatric Association (APA) eliminate the “D” from the term PTSD, stating that the word “disorder” furthers the stigma and that removing it would encourage veterans to seek treatment. However, researchers at RAND Corporation, a non-profit institution that helps improve policy and decision-making through research and analysis, found no scientific proof to the claim.

Families, health care, and privacy

Dr. Bellehsen emphasizes that our society tends to overlook the sweeping impact of the disorder. “PTSD is not isolated to the individual but it impacts the family,” he said.

While a veteran’s plight with PTSD is often felt by family members, Van Kirk offers them this suggestion: “Understand that they were in war two days ago, fearing for their lives and to expect them to sit in a classroom and to go to the mall…they can’t just snap out of it.”

According to Van Kirk, Marie LaPersonerie did not find out about Sean’s PTSD diagnosis until after he died. “He would go to the VA every now and again, then stopped going,” she says. Although Marie sought information from the Northport VA, she only received limited information on Sean’s progress because of the Heath Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), the health privacy law.

Van Kirk and LaPersonerie met with the staff of Rep. Steve Israel (D-NY) and proposed that they approach the U.S. Department of Defense about adding the HIPAA release form to every soldier’s deployment package. However, Dr. Thomesen stresses the importance of upholding the VA’s privacy laws. “We have to follow a higher level of getting consent from the veteran before we can disclose any personal information,” he says.

The mental health provision of the Secure Ammunition and Firearms Enforcement (SAFE) Act, a gun control law signed earlier this year by NYS Gov. Andrew Cuomo came under criticism for breaching an integral part of the medical code of ethics, doctor-patient confidentiality. A provision under the law requires mental health professionals to report patients they deem dangerous to state officials, but many experts believe that it will discourage certain individuals from seeking medical help in the future. According to Dr. Thomesen, the SAFE Act is not applicable at the Northport VA facilities.

Educating the public

LaPersonerie is determined to educate the public about PTSD. Since Van Kirk works as the director of the Spangle Drive Senior Center, the first senior center in the Town of Babylon that also serves as a source of health education for residents. She approached Suffolk County officials about hosting a PTSD workshop at the location, leading to the start of the Sean’s Hope PTSD program.

“Sean’s Hope is not a therapeutic program, it’s really an educational program,” says Town of Babylon Councilman, Thomas Donnelly. It is where caregivers of PTSD sufferers can obtain useful information.

Many U.S. soldiers are expected to return home as President Barack Obama plans to decrease the military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan. Suffolk County Legislator Steve Stern is committed to helping the influx of returning soldiers to reintegrate in to civilian life. He has held many public hearings on the issue as Chairman of the Veterans and Seniors Committee in the legislature.

Stern credits the Joseph P. Dwyer PTSD program, a peer support project in Suffolk County, as “one of the most important initiatives” that emanated from his meetings. Like Sean’s Hope, the program is yet another testament to Suffolk County’s commitment to reducing PTSD stigma and providing its returning veterans with premium care.

“Veterans prefer to deal and work with fellow veterans when it comes to these types of necessary services,” said Stern, “and that’s why the Joseph P. Dwyer program has been such a tremendous success.”

Veteran employment

One of the primary obstacles veterans with PTSD face after returning home from war is finding employment. A report released by the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) last year said companies cite PTSD stigma as a factor that could prevent veterans from being hired.

New data from the New York State Department of Labor and the U.S. Census shows that approximately 20 percent  of the 2,162 veterans under the age of 30, living in Suffolk County, are unemployed.

However, Suffolk County has made great strides in lowering its overall unemployment rate. It reached  7.1 percent in November 2012 but preliminary local area unemployment rates show that number has declined to 6.1 percent as of October 2013, a one-percent decrease. By comparison, the national unemployment rate declined 0.6 percentage points over the year.

Stern is proud of the initiatives that have been implemented to help Suffolk County veterans find employment, specifically one in place at Suffolk County Community College. The college “offers a veteran’s education assistance program and courses that are particularly geared to many of the employment opportunities that are available on Long Island today,” he said. “Our programs continue to serve as a model for others to follow.”