VFW Bartenders Serve Up Mental Health Help to Veterans

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Kelin Suddoth, 32, of Bridgeport, Ill., describes herself as an unlicensed psychologist licensed to serve drinks.

A bartender at the local Veterans of Foreign War Post 5079, Suddoth said many patrons share not only their family and day-to-day stories with her, but on occasion, war stories too.

"Our post has a neighborhood feel," said Suddoth. "I think people feel comfortable here."

But no story rocked her harder than that of a Vietnam veteran who visited the VFW bar at its morning opening hour and ordered hard liquor. Some days, he'd stay all day, she said. "Sometimes he'd share some traumatic things."

The veteran returned almost daily for two weeks before he died from alcohol-related complications.

"I still feel like I could have done more to save him," said Suddoth.

According to researchers at Ohio State University, bartenders are untapped resources who can help identify veterans who may be suffering from mental health disorders, such as post traumatic stress. Bartenders, who are more likely to be seen as confidants and colleagues, could have a better shot at connecting veterans with mental health agencies that could help them.

If VFW posts offered training to bartenders to help them identify various mental health disorders, such as post traumatic stress and depression,Suddoth said she wouldn't hesitate to sign up.

"I think that's very important," she said.

The Ohio State researchers studied survey responses from 71 bartenders who worked in 32 different VFW posts in Ohio.

Nearly 70 percent of those surveyed said their veteran patrons shared their problems with them. Eighty percent said they'd be willing to refer veterans to services at the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, according to the study published in the Journal of Military and Veterans' Health.

In general, a large proportion of veterans who have served in wars that predate Iraq and Afghanistan frequently visit VFWs, but many posts expect to see more recent veterans as more soldiers return from war.

"Veterans in general are more reluctant to seek help for their mental health," said Keith Anderson, lead author of the study and assistant professor of social work at Ohio State University. "I think we need to go to where the veterans are located."

The survey results prompted the researchers to plan a pilot program within 10 VFWs in Columbus, to help bartenders identify symptoms of mental health disorders.

Joe Davis, spokesman for the national VFW organization, said it has no plan to start mental health training programs for VFW bartenders.

"We are obviously supportive of any effort to get veterans the care they have earned and deserve," said Davis, but that having bartenders serve as mental health professionals could become a liability for the organization.

"We do, however, allow the VA to provide all types of mental health material to any VFW," said Davis.

Bartenders wouldn't be expected to become mental health counselors or licensed psychologists, said Anderson, but would learn to identify the basic symptoms of common disorders.

"We don't want to taint the relationship in any way," said Anderson, who said bartenders would serve more as friends and confidants. "We're hoping the bartenders can act as gatekeepers to the larger veteran health systems."

Anderson said helping a veteran to take action is the next step of a relationship that many veterans have already established with their VFW bartenders.

"It's a new way of looking at communities taking care of each other," said Anderson. "With budget cuts in some areas of health services, we need to start helping each other out more."

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