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Getting Mental Health Care to Veterans in Rural Areas

In recent years, an ever-increasing number of people have sought behavioral health care services at Highlands Hospital, many of them veterans. But for the most part, they aren't coming in and saying, "Hello, I have behavioral health care needs, can you please help?" More often than not, they are being admitted to the Emergency Room after a car accident or a drug overdose. Or they're coming in over and over again with headaches or stomache aches.

The truth eventually comes out: that car accident was really a suicide attempt; the overdose was from a drug addiction that started up post-deployment; the headaches are from troubled sleeping because of recurring nightmares about events they witnessed in Iraq and Afghanistan. In a lot of cases, it was post-traumatic stress disorder.

Highlands Hospital is in predominantly rural Fayette County. It's the prototype of a rural hospital in southwestern Pennsylvania. It has a small administrative staff and has to, in many ways, be all things to all people, including veterans. Because of its distance from Pittsburgh, or maybe because of its proximity to so many other places, and because of the more than 17,000 veterans in the county, it has become a sort of de-facto Veteran's Hospital.

That's what the U.S. Department of Defense was thinking of, when, at the urging of the late Congressman John Murtha, it funded and initiated a research project at Washington and Jefferson College. Called the Combat Stress Intervention Program, it focuses on the mental health needs of rural Southwestern Pennsylvania troops.