Veterans
3:24 pm
Wed May 2, 2012

Mental Health Clinic Provides Unique Treatment to Veterans' Families

Monday, we reported on a one-year-old clinic in West Allis treating a growing number of veterans with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Some say they’re seeking outside therapy because they’re dissatisfied with their VA health care. This morning, WUWM’s Erin Toner revisits the clinic to report on another free service it provides – mental health services for the families of veterans. Family members don’t qualify for care at VA hospitals.

Therapist Kathy Anderson chats with Claudia Stetz, the widow of a Vietnam War veteran.
Credit Erin Toner

Some may be all-too-familiar with this story – a teenager goes off to fight in Vietnam, watches his friends die and returns home to a lifetime of anxiety and flashbacks, never getting help.

That teenager-turned-soldier-turned-tortured adult was Claudia Stetz’s husband.

“Chronic nightmares, he was up all night, his nights were his days, his days were his nights. Suicidal ideation. Disappearances, where sometimes he’d want to go and be by himself. So it was not an average marriage or a normal marriage,” Stetz says.

Stetz’s husband died last year of liver failure, but she believes what killed him was his profound survivor guilt. He lived and they died, and the thought of it was too much to bear. Stetz says her husband was not interested in treatment, and even though she desperately wanted help, there were not good options for military spouses. She had to pay out-of-pocket, and then could not find a therapist familiar with veteran-specific issues – namely, the crushing grip her husband’s illness had on her.

“I talked to friends and whoever I could, but you know as a partner, mostly what you get is judgment. Why do you stay with him? Why do you put up with it? And so it’s quite the double bind, because when you see somebody who’s really suffering, it’s difficult to just cut them off and walk away,” Stetz says.

After decades of stress, Stetz says she has finally found some peace and support. She takes part in group therapy for military wives at Veteran Quest, a new mental health clinic in West Allis. It provides free psychotherapy and other programs not only for vets but for their partners, children and parents.

Kathy Anderson is the clinic’s assistant director. She says PTSD can devastate families, and usually they have no idea how to respond.

“If you had a major operation, before you leave the hospital, they give you a list of instructions, look for this, look for that, be careful, call the doctor if you see this. But these guys are coming home from war and there’s no list. And they go home and the wife doesn’t have the list…look out for this, watch out for that. They’re not prepared for this,” Anderson says.

Anderson says Veteran Quest opened last year to fill gaps reported at the VA. Government studies indicated the agency was not adequately addressing the mental health care needs of vets who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. And while the VA will treat families as a unit, it does not offer members individual care.

Psychiatrist Dr. Michael McBride is director of the PTSD treatment program at the VA hospital in Milwaukee. He says, even though health care benefits apply only to the service member, the VA recognizes a need to support the family. So last summer, the hospital began offering sessions to help family members adjust to a soldier’s return from deployment.

“We’re reaching out to families and spouses and doing parenting work, and really beginning to kind of address some of those family needs that traditionally really haven’t been addressed here at the VA,” McBride says.

While the VA intends to boost offerings for families, over at Veteran Quest, they can take yoga, or just drop in to socialize.

Assistant Director Kathy Anderson says all the clinic’s psychotherapists and social workers are either veterans, or have service members in their families.

“There has to be some understanding that this is different. The combat veteran is a specific population and how it affects their family members and their community is different than other types of trauma,” Anderson says.

Claudia Stetz, the widow of a Vietnam War veteran, says she hopes more spouses take advantage of the clinic, so they don’t suffer the way she did.

“There was a lot of angst in my marriage, a lot of misunderstanding, miscommunication. A lot lost in translation. Soldiers are supposed to protect civilians from the unspeakable, so civilians aren’t going to know what they went though. It’s just a dichotomy,” Stetz says.

During the clinic’s first year, more than 200 people visited for individual or group therapy, and new clients walk through the door every day. Kathy Anderson is working on grant proposals so the clinic might move into a larger facility and start paying its therapists – right now, all are volunteers.