Local veterans trying to break stigma surrounding mental illness

Published: Feb. 15, 2017 at 4:18 PM EST
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By: Erika Fernandez

February 15, 2017

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (WCTV) -- Members of the military put their lives on the line in hotspots around the world. But, all too many are dying from a different struggle when they come back home.

On average, 20 veterans take their own lives every day. The Veteran Affairs is dedicating new resources to the mental health crisis.

It's a job they say is built for warriors.

"The thought is accomplish the mission at all costs and there's no time for whining and crying," says Army veteran, Steve Ratliff.

Ratliff joined the Army at age 17. After serving as a cannon crew member, over time, he suffered traumatic brain injury.

"I spent a lot of time in the field firing the cannon and the cannon makes a lot of noise, a lot of percussions, loud noises, so I never wore ear plugs," Ratliff says.

But it wasn’t just the brain damage that changed his life. After 10 years in the military, Steve suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder.

"I used to be a young, happy guy, i was shy. But later on in life... I started to get agitated with just people in general," Steve says.

Ratliff attempted suicide numerous times. But at his lowest point, Steve reached out for help. That’s when a friend recommended hyperbaric chamber treatments.

"The brain injury tends to spread out, it’s a slow moving deterioration, and it spreads by the days. So what the extra oxygen does is kind of puts a band around it and stops it from spreading," says hyperbaric technician at Capital Regional Medical Center, Tracy Wilson.

After more than 30 treatments, Steve’s life has made a complete 180.

"I don’t feel people looking at me like in a piece of garbage any longer," Steve says.

Even those treating veterans in crisis are fighting their own battles. After running a mental health clinic for 1,900 military members, retired Capt. Paula Clark realized she needed to help herself.

"I’m resilient but there's only so much that I can take and there's only so much that I know when I need to ask for help or when someone else needs to ask for help," Clark says.

Clark now works with FSU to make it a veteran friendly campus, and she's turning her testimony into a way to help her brothers and sisters.

"We’re all human, you know. Certain things we're able to deal with for so long and I think all of us sort of have a different layer of what we can take," Clark says.

Dr. Deanna Epley is also using her own experience to help others.

"So much of PTSD is from what you've seen or what you've done," Dr. Epley says.

Epley treated anything from spinal cord injuries to amputations while in Vietnam. But it was while teaching a nursing class at FSU that she realized she hit her breaking point.

"The mannequin was missing an arm and a leg and had a colostomy. The weight of his body in my arms was not the weight of a normal body. Then I looked at the mannequin and ran," Dr. Epley says.

Now, Dr. Epley is sharing her story and bringing awareness to veteran mental health. She helps veterans seek out the treatment best suited for them.

"There just needs to be a general education of the public of what is going on, what needs to be done, and how everybody can help everybody," Dr. Epley says.

Both Clark and Epley hope to bring the average of 20 veteran suicides a day down to zero, one voice at a time.

"When we put on that uniform, we put on our game face, but the struggles are still real when we come home. The war is not just fought overseas, its fought when we come home," Capt. Clark says.

Licensed clinical social worker Capt. Paula Clark says one of the symptoms of PTSD is denial, but some of the best treatment is prolonged exposure, which is talking about the issue.

That help, and more, is available right here in Tallahassee for local veterans at the V.A. Outpatient Clinic.

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