Clergy training (source: U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs / www.blogs.va.gov)

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The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is hoping that a program to train clergy in rural areas can help veterans find medical care for mental and physical health issues. 

Funded by the VA’s Office of Rural Health, the Community Clergy Training Program to Support Rural Veterans Mental Health is an effort to train clergy members and others in the community on how to best help veterans in need. The program trains ministers in rural areas on what health care resources are available to the vets, as well as what kinds of mental and physical issues veterans may have when they return to civilian life.

The training covers four different areas – military culture and the wounds of war, pastoral care for veterans and their families, mental health and referrals for veterans, and building community Partnership which helps teach clergy members about building a network of support for the vets.

The program was tested in a pilot program in New England in 2010. At that time, it covered training for about 300 clergy members. Since then, the program has expanded to all 50 states, with 17 trainers, most of them veterans themselves, working with community members in rural areas and teaching them how to deal with the special needs veterans may have from the perspective of mental, physical and spiritual health.

According to the VA’s Office of Rural Health, one in every five service members comes home from combat assignments with at least one serious mental health issue. That combined with the shortage of psychologists in rural areas can create a problem for veterans in rural locations.

“Many veterans come back from service with mental health needs that differ from those of the general population,” said Thomas Klobucar, Ph.D., acting executive director of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Office of Rural Health. “With fewer mental health providers per patient in rural America, there is an acute need to address rural provider shortages, retain what workforce there is, and find ways to compensate for shortages using innovative solutions.”

By using trained community support people, the VA is able to tackle mental health issues of rural vets in new ways.

“This funding builds the rural mental health workforce, provides specialized training to clinicians on military-specific issues and helps find ways to bring in the community to play a role in identifying and supporting rural veterans’ mental health,” Klobucar said.