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Depression on the home front

McClatchy-Tribune (McClatchy-Tribune / The Spokesman-Review)
McClatchy-Tribune (McClatchy-Tribune / The Spokesman-Review)

Faith communities believe they’re in a unique position to help veterans and their families

When veterans return from war, depression and post-traumatic stress can return with them. Children in the family sense it right away. Maybe their neighborhood buddies are no longer welcome in their homes. Or a parent who once happily joined in their outdoor adventures now prefers sitting in a darkened living room.

“A person who is seriously depressed stops being an active member of the family, and all of family life can start to devolve around the limitations of the person,” explained Spokane counselor Marian Beaumier.

But if the family has a faith community, help might be preaching from the altar or sitting in the next pew.

Catholic Charities Spokane and Lutheran Community Services will sponsor a free workshop Wednesday for clergy, pastoral staff and lay leaders interested in helping veterans and their families, especially veterans returning from war zones.

The workshop will examine the symptoms of post-traumatic stress and other emotional concerns, including the warning signs of suicide. And workshop participants will get strategies for dealing with those issues and a list of community resources for veterans and their families.

Beaumier is one of the presenters. She will join experts from Spokane Veterans Outreach Center, including Air Force veteran Michael Ogle, the center’s Iraqi-Afghanistan outreach coordinator.

One in six soldiers and Marines acknowledges symptoms of severe depression and post-traumatic stress, Ogle said. In 2005, he said, the Veterans Affairs reported that 20 percent of the country’s 168,528 Iraqi vets were diagnosed with psychological disorders.

Faith communities, especially pastors and lay ministers, are in a unique position to connect with vets and their families. Some reasons why:

•Military folks trust chaplains.

“Chaplains are entrenched with soldiers, sailors, Marines. Chaplains have total confidentiality,” explained Ogle.

During active duty, military men and women with mental health concerns will confide in chaplains, secure in the confidentiality clause. So when they return from war, they often seek out priests, pastors and lay ministers.

“Oftentimes there is transference from the military chaplain to the local priest or local preacher. A combat veteran might look to these folks as their safe place to begin working their issues,” said David Baird, clinical social worker with the outreach center.

“We hear that all the time from the pastors who say, ‘I’ve got soldiers coming up to me and they open up.’ These clergy really want some tools,” Baird said.

•Vets who return depressed and stressed isolate themselves. Faith communities can be proactive in ending the isolation.

Sometimes, veterans stop attending church entirely, Ogle said.

“Coming back from war, sometimes you don’t feel like you’re allowed to go back to church. Sometimes people that kill other people or see atrocities don’t feel comfortable, like they have done something wrong,” he said.

Baird recommends that pastors note the absences in a nonjudgmental way by visiting or phoning at home. The inquiry may help the vet open up about the emotional distress fueling the isolation.

Beaumier says church members can be proactive: “You can say, ‘I’m concerned because I see this and this. How about going to see a counselor, going to the Veterans Outreach Center? I’ll be happy to take you and be there with you.’ ”

•Faith communities often possess resources to help military families before, during and after deployment.

“A family who has a deployed member has a group of people who can wrap around them,” Beaumier said.

They can bless the person going off to war. They can make sure a family has enough food or the parent left behind has help with child care. They can provide scholarships to church programs that require fees.

They can send care packages to the person deployed. They can welcome the person back to the faith community upon return.

So how do military families without faith communities find one?

“Look back in on the faith community you were raised in,” Beaumier advised. “Or ask people you respect if they are affiliated with a faith community and then consider visiting.”

The increased number of military members returning from war zones presents faith communities with the opportunity to examine how hospitable they appear to military families, the experts say.

After all, Ogle pointed out, “churches can be your second family.”