Wednesday December 7, 2011

With a full withdrawal of American troops from Iraq looming, area mental health care providers are bracing for a surge in demand for their services as veterans return home.

In preparation, the Berkshire Area Health Education Center is planning a training conference as a step toward readying health professionals across New England.

"There are simply not enough resources currently to provide support for veterans coming back," said Timothy Diehl, the executive director of the Berkshire AHEC. "There are a lot of challenges for returning veterans, just in terms of learning how to socialize and fit into their community again, because for so many of them, their experience in an active war zone has changed them."

The event will focus on educating new trainers about health issues specific to veterans, from traumatic brain injuries to post-traumatic stress disorder. Those trainers will then go out and work with health care providers who interact with patients.

"It's really learning new strategies and behaviors. A large part of this training is understanding what is it that the veterans are presenting and what kind of approaches are going to be the most helpful to them so they can lead a normal, productive life," said Diehl.

The conference will include staff from Health Education Centers across New England. It's scheduled to take place in March.

Diehl said the Berkshire AHEC was chosen to plan the conference, which will take place in Boston, because of its reputation for bringing training to professionals in the health and mental health fields.

Berkshire AHEC is funded through the federal government. A total of $4,000 has been budgeted for the conference.

Locally, veteran service providers said there's a great need for the training Berkshire AHEC plans to provide.

Rosanne Frieri, the director of veteran services in Pittsfield, said many veterans return with mental health issues that are not easily addressed.

"Once the withdrawal from Iraq starts, and they're really pulling out, we're going to become extremely busy," said Frieri. "We've got to be prepared, it's crucial."

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