For many soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, the physical combat ends, but the mental conflict rages on. An estimated 20 percent of the 2.8 million troops who have served in recent conflicts suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a chronic disabling condition marked by anxiety, irritability, withdrawal, flashbacks, and suicidal impulses. Affected veterans experience an array of often overlapping mental health issues, including depression, alcohol and drug abuse, and broken relationships. Yet few get the counseling and treatment they desperately need.
In 2012, to help veterans and active-duty servicemen and -women of all wars, NYU Langone established an outpatient mental health clinic: the Steven A. Cohen Military Family Clinic. Supported by the Steven and Alexandra Cohen Foundation and other donors, the clinic provides free treatment to veterans and their family members who have been impacted by military service. Of the clinic’s more than 800 patients, about 30 percent are family members—from spouses and children to grandparents and significant others—for whom treatment would not be available through the Veterans Administration healthcare system.
“The burden of deployment may be equal or even greater on the families,” notes Dr. Charles Marmar.
Family members with loved ones in combat zones face unique stressors: isolation, loneliness, anxiety, uncertainty. “The burden of deployment may be equal or even greater on the families,” notes Charles Marmar, MD, chair of the Department of Psychiatry, who has found in a series of landmark studies that hundreds of thousands of Vietnam veterans are still struggling with PTSD four decades later. “Fighters are trained to go to war and know what to do in war. Spouses and children are in a helpless situation, not knowing if their loved ones are coming home. Military service disrupts the cohesion of the family back home.”
Beyond deployment stress, the clinic also helps families address common challenges of military life, such as relocation issues, school problems, and financial concerns. Its specialists tailor treatment to the individual, using a variety of proven approaches: talk-based therapies that help patients process and deal with traumatic events and address destructive cycles in their relationships, techniques that use rapid eye movements to dampen traumatic memories, and medication when necessary.
“Treatment typically lasts three to four months,” says Irina Wen, PhD, director of the clinic. “Our patients report substantial improvement—in their symptoms, how their family functions, and their quality of life.”