THE PULPIT: Pastors try to reach out to veterans with PTSD

May 29, 2009

Helping people who don't seek or want help can be tricky.

Some Colorado Springs pastors are struggling with this as it relates to military people in their congregation suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or traumatic brain injury.

What are the symptoms to look for, they ask, and what degree of intervention is appropriate for clergy?

A series of Colorado Springs seminars that began in October have addressed these issues by teaching religious leaders how to recognize combat-related stress disorders, then refer sufferers to trained combat therapists.

"Many troops worship at local churches, and pastors need to know of the challenges the troops returning from Iraq and their families face," said Brian Duncan, an organizer of the seminars and a psychotherapist at Pikes Peak Behavioral Health.

Interest in the six-month-old program remains, as evidenced by about 60 church leaders attending a combat-stress seminar this month.

But the program has run into an unexpected stumbling block: Pastors aren't convinced PTSD and traumatic brain injury are issues among troops in their congregation, said Khan McClellan, senior pastor of Calvary United Methodist Church in Colorado Springs.

"A lot of pastors need to get past the bump of denial," McClellan said.

"There is a stigma about mental health issues in general that stops pastors from asking members of their congregation if they are suffering from PTSD."

McClellan is one of the few local ministers implementing a plan to identify and reach out to soldiers suffering from combat-related stress.

He has created a five-member task force to address the issue among his 300 weekly congregants, many of whom have a military background. Among congregants he's met with is a veteran of Operation Desert Storm who struggles with mental focus.

But denial among clergy is not the only hurdle.

McClellan said soldiers can be in denial about mental trauma. One soldier he reached out to refused counselling and referrals and has since moved out of the area.

"There is, among soldiers, a feeling of toughing out their condition," McClellan said.

Dennis Aleson, interim pastor at Stratmoor Hills United Methodist Church in Colorado Springs, is better equipped than most clergy in spotting PTSD, having been an Air Force chaplain for 27 years, sometimes on the scene of battle. Aleson plans to meet with a congregant returning from Iraq on midtour leave in July.

"I will sit and talk to him and engage in therapeutic listening," Aleson said. "The sooner you can talk to them about their experience, the better."

For more religion news, go to my blog, The Pulpit.


Call the writer at 636-0367.



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