Out of the nearly 14,500 veterans living in Hays County, Gene Hooper, Hill Country Military Veteran Peer Network coordinator, said he currently sees approximately 200 veterans a year for mental health issues.
According to a study conducted by the Department of Veterans Affairs, more than 1.5 million of the 5.5 million veterans seen in VA hospitals had a mental health diagnosis in 2016.
“The Department of Defense is designed to build soldiers. It’s not designed to build a civilian,” Hooper said. “When veterans are discharged from the military, they are a different person than they were when they were first deployed. They have this new identity. A lot of what we have to do is teach them that the military identity is still a part of you but you [have to]get back in touch with who you were before, or you have to get in touch with the new you.”
Jude Prather, Hays County veteran services officer, said veterans diagnosed with a mental health disorders are either referred to The Scheib Center here in Hays County or to the VA hospitals and centers in San Antonio and Austin to receive medical treatment. Prather and his team at the Veterans Service Office work with veterans to make sure that they and their families receive the benefits that they have earned.
In addition, Hooper said mental services such as art and equine therapy, veteran peer groups and telemedicine opportunities are available for veterans in the county.
Up until five years ago, Hooper said Texas did not have the resources to deal with all the mental health issues a veteran may experience. Places like The Scheib Center predominantly treat veterans with depression, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. However Hooper said the Military Veteran Peer Network organization was chosen by the state to help veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder, military sexual trauma or traumatic brain injuries.
“I think we have gotten really good about having resources. It’s just not having enough or getting veterans in in enough time. But that is the problem with all mental health services,” Hooper said. “A lot of my job is trying to help [veterans]while they are waiting the four to six weeks before their VA or Scheib appointment. The services are here, but there is just not enough people to see the people that needs to be seen. Mental health is great 8-5 p.m., but in my experience, mental health is 3 a.m. in the morning and no one is around.”
Hooper and Prather added that transportation was another hurdle veterans may have to overcome to receive treatment.
A drive from San Marcos, Buda and Kyle to the Audie L. Murphy Memorial Hospital in San Antonio ranges between 49-67 miles. The distance to Olin E. Teague Veterans Medical Center in Temple ranges between 79-97 miles.
To help with this issue, Prather said the Veteran Service Office offers free transportation three times a week to the VA in San Antonio. He added that the program hopes to receive a grant to either add more days in its rotation in the future or add an additional route to Austin’s VA center.
A veteran himself, Hooper said he understands the “Embrace the Suck”—service members can overcome anything they want, if they want it hard enough—mentality enforced in the military. While there is a stigma against mental health treatment for veterans, he hopes Hays County continues to grow its mental health services for veterans.
“Veterans, they are notorious for waiting until the very last minute until they can’t take it anymore. So whether you realize they are in crisis or not, they are probably in crisis,” Hooper said. “People thank us all the time, and it’s great, but what veterans really need is people to understand what they are going through.”
Veterans Treatment Court
According to the National Center for PTSD, programs such as Veterans Treatment Court have been developed to keep war veterans with mental health problems from being put in jail or prison.
In 2014, Hays County began its own Veterans Treatment Court with the goal of getting veterans the treatment they need, so they are in a better place before they joined the court, according to Gerald Ramcharan, Veterans Treatment Court program manager.
The Veterans Treatment Court is a 12-24 month, three phased, specialized treatment court designed to address the unique needs of honorably discharged veterans and currently serving active duty service members.
Judge David Glickler, who presides over the treatment court, said the key difference between this court and other courts is there is more engagement and investment in the people than for those who go through general court.
“We don’t give up easily. We do expect them to have failures, and we do expect them to make mistakes,” Glickler said. “It is not a get out of jail free card. It is not the easy way out. [However] If you can hold people accountable faster, quicker and more thoroughly, you can redirect their behavior so that they don’t repeat their criminal offenses.”
Ramcharan said veterans must go through a screening process before joining the treatment court, have committed a misdemeanor crime, have the crime accepted by the district attorney’s office, the veteran must plead guilty, be able to take responsibility for his or her mistakes, and be ready to work on his or her underlying issues.