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Workshop Provides Mental Health Training For Those Working With Veterans

A workshop held in the North Hills on Friday provided mental health training to clergy and social workers who work with veterans.

Lt. Colonel Michele Papakie has been in the Air Force for 28 years. She’s the Inspector General at the 171st Air Refueling Wing of the Pennsylvania Air National Guard.

She spoke to clergy and social workers about her deployments and what she has seen in her colleagues as well as her grandfather, father and son who have all served in the military.

In 2010 she was deployed to Afghanistan, where she worked with victims of sexual assault. It was difficult work – and stirred up in her issues she hadn’t dealt with – her own sexual assault a decade earlier.

“It took me almost a year to get help because I just kept denying it and denying it until it manifested in sleep issues and health issues and finally I just had to confront it," she said. "And I feel like I’ve experienced post-traumatic growth because of it."

Papakie, who sought mental health treatment at the VA, urged those in attendance to take veterans' specific needs into consideration — and to listen, particularly to what’s not being said and presents itself in physical or behavioral abnormalities.  

She said veterans don’t like to share with their family members what they’ve gone through.

“It was bad enough that we had to see it and experience it so we don’t want to put it on our loved ones and our friends, because then they have to carry that burden too," Papakie said. "So it's easier for us to just talk to other veterans who have experienced similar things; they’ve already had the trauma or the impact of it. We feel they can handle it better and can understand where we’re coming from. It's like a different language.”

She added that while veterans understand each other, she doesn’t necessarily advocate for peer-to-peer counseling. She said there is so much trained mental health professionals can bring to the table.