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Mental Health Attack: How Can We Help Veterans

Wars are not over when the shooting stops. They live on in the lives, memories, bodies, and brains of those who fight them.

We want to share a story of a former patient Max Cleland. Forty-eight years ago in Vietnam, he lost two legs and then his right arm in a grenade explosion. The physical injuries healed first; the rehabilitation took much longer, and the emotional anguish has never completely healed for him.

Max’s experience as a patient with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), former head of the Veterans Administration, founder of the Vet Center Program that provides counseling, outreach and referral services to combat veterans and their families, and as a United States Senator, gives him a unique viewpoint that we are excited to share with you.

There is Room for Improvement in Mental Health

First, we must also acknowledge there is significant room for improvement in mental health care as there remains an unacceptably high number of suicides among veterans, and the success rates for PTSD, depression, and anxiety disorders have not improved in years.

In addition, the fallout from the recent wars will impact veterans, families and our society for at least 70 more years. PTSD, depression, and traumatic brain injuries (TBI), common among our veterans, all increase the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia.

These problems will not be solved without intense, long-term focus and commitment. Anything this country can do to improve mental health care to our war-injured, we should do. It is more than extending a helping hand.

Max shared with us how slow his treatment path was. It was also, frustrating, and sometimes terrifying. For years he told physicians about his symptoms, then based on those symptoms he was prescribed a variety of psychotropic medications (anti-depressants, anxiolytics, and sleep medications), which were mostly ineffective or made him feel worse.

How SPECT Brain Imaging Changed Max’s Life

On the advice of a colleague, Max had a functional nuclear brain imaging study called SPECT (single photon emission computed tomography) that measures regional cerebral blood flow.

PTSD and TBI can have overlapping symptoms (e.g., insomnia, anxiety, depression, and concentration problems — Max had all of them), but the treatments are very different; and the ones that may be helpful for PTSD, such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors or benzodiazepines, can impede function or even be harmful to those with TBI.

Max’s SPECT scan showed evidence of both PTSD and TBI. The TBI was never addressed because he did not lose consciousness in the explosion. The functional study gave his physicians important direction for treatment that significantly improved how he felt over time and provided insights into adverse responses to prior medications.

A New Perspective of Mental Health for Max

In truth, the results gave Max a new perspective of himself and the mental health care system.
Fewer than half of those who suffer from mental health problems ever seek help. Why? Let’s be honest…

Many active duty personnel, veterans, and people in general, hesitate to seek mental health care. No one wants to be labeled mentally ill, defective or abnormal.

In addition, the value of knowing that the structure of Max’s brain was normal, but the function was abnormal, gave him hope that his brain could get better.

What if We Reimagined Mental Health as Brain Health?

At Amen Clinics, we believe this one simple idea could shift the negative attitudes many people have about mental illness, decrease stigma, and increase the willingness to get help among those who most need it.

We envision a time in the not-too-distant future when mental health problems will be evaluated and treated like other medical issues, and physicians will use functional imaging tools, genetics, and other markers to guide treatment — just as cardiologists, oncologists or orthopedists do to help their patients today.

Max Cleland is a disabled U.S. Army veteran of the Vietnam War, a recipient of the Silver Star for valor, former head of the Veterans Administration, and U.S. Senator from Georgia. He is a strong advocate for veterans and all of those who struggle with mental health issues.

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COMMENTS

  1. 4G LTE says:

    My husband and I are both veterans and both suffering from mental issues that I think could benefit from SPECT scans. Do you plan to work with the Veterans Administration to make SPECT scans affordable and accessible to veterans in need?

    • Connie Houlden says:

      I am also an army veteran and had toxic exposures in the army and a few TBI’s and at least 3 concussions in my life. I have had constant headaches for 26 years and still the VA will not acknowledge or give decent treatment for it. Just more drugs and/or depression counseling. The drugs have been very toxic to my brain. I’ve spent all of my extra money trying to get well and if I can save enough money I will get a SPECT scan. Until then, I will try to follow Dr. Amen’s protocol and do the best I can. Discouragement is the worst thing and there are remedies out there that would help. It’s a long road and quality of life is not good. But we have to keep fighting for improvements in our health care.

  2. 4G LTE says:

    Max,

    How did you afford the SPECT scan? Did the VA pay for it?

  3. Wow, this piece of writing is nice, my sister is analyzing
    these kinds of things, so I am going to tell her.

  4. JuanaIsabelle says:

    I have been following Dr. Amen’s videos, newsletter, etc., except…only people with wealth can afford to get treatment. Because I agree with him…How do you treat an organ without seeing it first.

  5. Joan Rogers says:

    As a former wife of a career military officer, I still suffer what I believe is PTSD. During a 20 yr marriage, I suffered abuse, physical and mental abuse, from a alcoholic sociopathic, narcissictic, womanizer, sex addict, etc. After being divorced for over 30 years, I still wake up with nightmares. While I completely understand veterans experiences are completely different from mine, my experience coincide with the military aspect. Thought you might like to make a statement about this. Thank you.

  6. Carolyn Mackety says:

    I took care of Max after he was wounded at Walter Reed Hospital and then meet with him while he was the Aministrator of the VA while I was a nurse at the VA hospital in Madison WI. This message is to say Hi to Max. Carolyn

  7. Family Advocate says:

    VA only offers studies to those who experience combat PTSD / only those who went overseas & fought vs. vets who have any form of PTSD, possible TBIs (non combat related), or mental illness who could really benefit from their studies. If I can be corrected, please reach out to me. My family members will get that SPECT if I can help them. It’s all a matter of when. Thank you Dr. Amen for your work. I have been listening to Unchain Your Brain and reading Hardware for Your Soul. Really amazing work. You also treated one of my in-laws years ago. God bless you continuously.

  8. Ty Heiss says:

    Dr. Amen only helps veterans with cash upfront, 3-5 thousand dollars or more, or veterans with good credit. So the larger portion of us are left to wish for a scan that could change everything. Veterans affairs in Battle Creek MI is garbage, I had to sleep on the lawn and refuse to leave to get treatment, and then was horribly mismedicated. Must be nice to be rich.

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