UT Austin research aims to help veterans get mental health services

CEDAR PARK, Texas (KXAN) — For United States veterans, coming home from deployment can be one of the hardest challenges to overcome.

“Some disabilities you cannot see,” says Air Force veteran, Bam Rubenstein. “Back then I was in pretty bad shape. When I first walked in my marriage was falling apart, I was depressed and started seeing my PTSD shrink.”

Transitioning back to civilian life is uncharted territory, where it’s easy to get lost. Air Force veteran Marisela Gonzales also knows the feeling. “Sometimes you need to escape the world and feel safe, and these are safe grounds.”

She’s talking about Heroes Night Out, a resource center in Cedar Park. But not all towns have a place like this.

In a 2013 research study, UT graduate students from the LBJ School of Public Affairs found it can be difficult for veterans to get access to mental health services. It’s even harder for minorities, women and veterans who live in rural communities.

“We did not realize there are so many veterans, and they are so dispersed over the state,” said Professor David Eaton. “We have so many veterans returning from Iraq, Afghanistan and other theaters. This is something that is important for our society.

The report was commissioned by the Meadows Foundation and supported by the Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute.

Graduate students spoke with veterans across the state, learning more about the challenges they face. “It was extremely eye-opening for me and I learned a lot about the veteran experience and what they face trying to reintegrate back into the states, and create happy, healthy lives back here in Texas,” said recent graduate, Rebecca Hornbach. “It’s very challenging.”

Hornbach says despite the fact that there’s many stakeholders working on the problem, there’s very little coordination among them. One of their findings was a need for a stronger network and coordination among providers.

Ultimately, the research informed new legislation that dedicates $20 million to improve veterans’ mental health services in Texas. “The legislation seeks to accomplish some very straightforward things: improving access to services, focusing on the underserved – particularly rural, women and minorities,” said Professor Eaton. “Looking at coordination of services, looking at the transition of services.”

Veterans like Rubenstein and Gonzales know how important that effort is.

“It took a while, it took a while to get to a point where I felt I actually had control. First part was admitting that there was issues,” said Gonzales. “And once I admitted that, I was able to get connected with the resources, the right resources. And I got control of my life and control over my feelings.”

Professor Eaton says the grant funds will be allocated throughout the state by the Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute.

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