WASHINGTON - Thousands of private counselors are offering free services to troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan with mental health problems, jumping in to help because the military is short on therapists.
America's armed forces and its veterans are coping with depression, suicide, family, marital and job problems on a scale not seen since Vietnam. The government has been in beg-borrow-and-steal mode, trying to hire psychiatrists and other professionals, recruit them with incentives, or borrow them from other agencies.
Among those volunteering an hour a week to help is Brenna Chirby, a psychologist with a private practice in McLean, Va.
"It's only an hour of your time," said Chirby, who counsels a family member of a man deployed multiple times. "How can you not give that to these men and women that . . . are going oversees and fighting for us?"
There are only 1,431 mental health professionals among the nation's 1.4 million active-duty military personnel, said Terry Jones, a Pentagon spokesman on health issues.
About 20,000 more full- and part-time professionals provide health-care services for the Veterans Administration and the Pentagon. They include psychiatrists, psychologists, psychiatric nurses, social workers, and substance abuse counselors.
According to veterans groups and health experts, that is not enough for a mental health crisis emerging among troops and families.
"Honestly, much is being done by the Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs," said retired Army Brig. Gen. Stephen Xenakis, a psychiatrist. "But the need to help these men and women goes far beyond whatever any government agency can do."
About 300,000 of those who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan are estimated to have anxiety or post-traumatic stress, a recent private study said. Add in spouses left home to manage families and households without their partner as well as children deprived of parents during long or repeated tours of duty, and the number with problems balloons to one million, Xenakis said.
"There are over 400,000 mental health professionals in our great country," said Barbara V. Romberg, a clinical psychologist who practices in Washington. "Clearly, we have the resources to meet this challenge."
Romberg founded Give An Hour, a group of 1,200 mental health professionals donating one hour of free care a week to troops, veterans or family members. They have to commit to doing it for a year.