Two medical education groups and 130 medical schools signed on to First Lady Michelle Obama’s initiative to “train the nation’s physicians to meet the unique healthcare needs of the military and veterans’ communities,” the White House announced recently. The schools pledged to do in-depth research into post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injuries (TBI) and to teach medical students and physicians to “better diagnose and treat our veterans and military families,” according to the announcement. “By directing some of our brightest minds, our most cutting-edge research, and our finest teaching institutions toward our military families, they’re ensuring that those who have served our country receive the first-rate care that they have earned,” Obama said.
Speaking at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU), Obama said that the American Association of Medical Colleges and the American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine have pledged to devote research, education and clinical care to address military service members’ crucial healthcare needs.
The initiative is part of the Joining Forces campaign, an effort by the first lady and Dr. Jill Biden that focuses on issues that affect veterans and their families. Obama cited some examples already are underway at universities, including VCU, which has undertaken a project to provide resources and training to healthcare providers, volunteers and community members across Virginia to help veterans. Similarly, University of Pittsburgh researchers are developing a new imaging tool that lets physicians see high-definition views of the brain’s wiring. This can help diagnose a TBI. And the University of South Florida is working with the VA and the Department of Defense to create a Center for Veterans Reintegration – a research, treatment and education center for veterans and their families.
“Today the nation’s medical colleges are committing to create a new generation of doctors, medical schools and research facilities to make sure our heroes receive the care worthy of their military service,” Obama said. The idea behind Joining Forces is extremely simple, Obama said. “In a time of war, when our troops and their families are sacrificing so much, we all should be doing everything we can to serve them as well as they are serving this country,” she added. “It’s an obligation that extends to every single American. And, it’s an obligation that does not end when a war ends and troops return home. In many ways, that’s when it begins.”
Mrs. Obama said she became aware of this when she and President Barack Obama welcomed the final troops home from Iraq last month. “I couldn’t shake the feeling that even though we were marking the end of the war, this was not an ending for them. For our troops, the end of war marks the beginning of a very long period of transition,” she said. Frequently, the transitions from war to home “bring the hardest moments our troops and their families will ever face,” she added.
It is estimated that one in six of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans come home with post-traumatic stress disorder or depression, and at least 4,000 have had at least a moderate-grade brain injury, Mrs. Obama said, noting that many avoid seeking help because of what they perceive as a stigma. “I want to be very clear today: these mental health challenges are not a sign of weakness,” she said. “They should never again be a source of shame. They are a natural reaction to the challenges of war, and it has been that way throughout the ages.”
Obama thanked the troops and their families for their service, and noted that anyone experiencing mental health difficulties should not be ashamed. “Seek help, don’t bury it,” she said. “Asking for help is a sign of strength.” The Pentagon estimates that nearly 213,000 military personnel have suffered traumatic brain injuries in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2000.
A previous report by the Rand Corp. think tank estimated that 300,000 veterans of both conflicts suffered PTSD or major depression. Less than 50 percent had sought treatment for PTSD over the previous year and approximately 60 percent of those reporting a probable brain injury had not been evaluated by a physician for one. “This is a long-term issue for the nation,” said Brad Cooper, the executive director of Joining Forces.
“Those of us who have never experienced war will never be able to fully understand the true emotional costs,” Mrs. Obama said. “PTSD, TBI, depression and any other combat-related mental health issue should never again be a source of shame.”
Although the military has strong support systems and personnel trained in combat-related mental health issues, more than half of veterans seek treatment in their hometowns, outside the military and the Department of Veterans Affairs, Mrs. Obama said. The new initiative aims at assuring that all civilian physicians have access to information on those issues.
“Everyone is stepping up,” Mrs. Obama said while praising the ongoing work of researchers at the colleges involved in the initiative. She said the will to help veterans is strong and goes beyond Veterans Day parades and rallies on Fort Bragg. Obama said the “hidden wounds” faced by many veterans are the “most difficult struggle they will face.” She said it was imperative for the nation’s physicians to understand the mental health challenges involved. “Mere words and anecdotes don’t do any of this justice,” she said.