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Mental health study focuses on Southwestern Pennsylvania troops

Researchers at Washington & Jefferson College are embarking on a three-year project to determine the behavioral health needs of troops returning from war to their rural homes.

But to do that, they need to hear from National Guard and Reserve personnel and their families.

"Coming back from the war, it's normal to have transition difficulties and not feel well-balanced," said Mary Ann Lauffer. "It's just we need to understand their needs so all the services that are out there can help them."

Lauffer is coordinating the Washington County college's Combat Stress Intervention Program, a research project funded by the U.S. Department of Defense.

The first step is a discussion with those closest to military personnel -- their families.

The researchers are inviting adult family members or the significant others of National Guard or Reserve personnel who served in Operation Iraqi Freedom or Operation Enduring Freedom from January 2003 to December 2007 to share their opinions at four focus group sessions in Cambria and Fayette counties.

The sessions will be held at 6 p.m. Wednesday and 1 p.m. Saturday at the Johnstown Holiday Inn Express, 1440 Scalp Ave., and at 6 p.m. June 4 and 1 p.m. June 14 at Penn State Fayette, The Eberly Campus, Route 119 near Uniontown.

Each discussion participant will be asked for an alias. Participants will not have to give their real names or any other identifying information.

Those interested in the voluntary program can call 888-848-0718 to answer a few simple, screening questions and to hear about the process. Those selected to participate will receive a small gift.

In the coming months and years, researchers will survey 1,500 National Guard and Reserve members in Southwestern Pennsylvania. They will talk with primary care physicians and mental health workers in Cambria and Fayette counties, which were chosen because of their rural nature.

"We have a couple of years to produce some good information about rural returning National Guard and reservists and the barriers some of them are experiencing unique to rural areas," Lauffer said.

Lauffer said the Defense Department is trying to look beyond itself to what services in the community Reserve and Guard personnel no longer on active duty and their loved ones might need.

"Are there things that are holding people back from getting services or wanting to get services, or do they simple not need them?" Lauffer said. "We want to talk to them about their experience in receiving care, and do they have any behavioral care issues. From their standpoint, how has it been for them?"

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