Veterans’ Perspective: The Benefits of Peer Counseling for Veterans
By: Lois Matteis
Throughout recent history, gigantic strides have been made in mental health treatments and how the public has responded to this issue. One extremely under-rated method for mental health assistance has been peer counseling, and this is especially true for veterans. In 2014, The School of Medicine and the Veterans Affairs Palo Alto Health Care System designed a pilot program for the purposes of training veterans to help their peers suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and this has branched out into several different organizations who have adopted this method to help veterans with their mental wellbeing. Individuals who have served in different wars have vastly different experiences than those of former or latter wars, and having a peer counselor who went through the same experience instantly bridges a connection between the two individuals. This is especially true for the weapons culture within the military. Veterans who counsel their peers benefit in many ways:
1) They understand the language and culture of the individuals who need help. Veterans who need help will not be as fearful of negative repercussions because of a misunderstandings. This disorder breeds distrust, so getting counseling from someone from a different world may not help as much as it appears.
2) Having a large community of peers who went through similar experiences would allow veterans suffering from PTSD to feel less isolated and could receive help outside of self-medicating and waiting months for the VA to play catch-up. The opportunity for a mutually beneficial bonding experience with both peers would lead to a more substantial network of help for all parties involved.
Being in the military is a unique culture all its own, complete with an abundance of acronyms, early mornings, late nights, weapons training and a combat mentality. After spending five years in the Marine Corps, it is a little difficult thinking of speaking to someone who has never experienced this type of an environment. Of course they do help many veterans, but bridging that gap seems like such a daunting task. Speaking personally, I want someone to teach me how to handle the issues. I don’t want to be the one to teach the words, phrases, and actions of my day to day life in the military. Many who have been deployed excelled in their specific combat environment. The issue is not teaching them to deal with it, it is a matter of unlearning the very skills which kept them alive. Veterans act without thinking, and frankly, have a very low tolerance for “bullshit.”
One of the most significant disconnects between civilians and veterans, however, is the relationship veterans have with weapons. Repeating the mantra “This is my rifle. There are many like it but this one is mine…” every day in boot camp, for example, ingrains in many veterans’ heads pretty early on that weapon accountability is of the utmost importance. Weapons become an extra limb, and a matter of protection. Many veterans carry for a number of reasons, including protection for themselves and their families.
On the other side of that, however, almost 70% of veterans who commit suicide do so with a gun. Many who ponder suicide with their weapon are also likely to not report the incident, because they fear the counselor could recommend taking away their weapon or putting them on a watch list. Talking to a psychologist about contemplating suicide with a weapon may lead a veteran to think he or she could lose their gun rights. This fear is not irrational considering the plethora of misinformation and rumors regarding gun ownership and PTSD. This disconnect has led to a severe distrust of counseling because many veterans don’t want to lose the rights they fought for. Whether someone were to agree with this reasoning or not, it is still a prominent issue when it comes to veterans and receiving care for mental illness. If veterans feel they will be treated unfairly or stigmatized, they are less likely to seek out help.
Talking to a peer counselor, however, who also carries, who also has PTSD, and who also experiences the same hurdles brings forth an understanding a veteran may not be able to get with a civilian counselor. A peer counselor understands the culture and why carrying a weapon is important to veterans. It is part of their identity, and a peer counselor could come up with ways to support the veteran without trying to impose on his or her way of life. Many veterans feel more comfortable speaking to a peer vs. someone in a white coat. The important factor is creating a community of support. Through peer support, veterans with PTSD can also make an external connection to a network of individuals who are readily available to support their brothers and sisters of the service. This would greatly improve the assistance a veteran with PTSD or depression could receive.
One of the problems of this program, however, is that not many veterans are aware of its existence or the potential benefits of the program. Listed below, are links to several types of programs who offer peer counseling and training for those who wish to help, and they have compiled them from locations all over the nation. There are so many programs out there, and hopefully it can help a loved veteran get the help they need.