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Bringing Mental Health Services for Vets to the Forefront

When Dr. Mark Russell was the only psychologist supporting mental health needs for 6,000 United States Marines on a base in Japan, he knew the system had to change, to ameliorate a widespread crisis.

The shortage in staffing was chronic and widely known but the military failed to respond,” says Russell, who became a psychology professor at Antioch’s Seattle campus in 2009 after retiring from 26 years in the American military. He served as a Marine Sergeant, a Navy Commander, and a military psychologist deployed in support of the Iraq invasion in 2003.

Russell says he was a whistleblower for recognizing this issue and how it was also affecting civilians returning home from service. To support his mission to increase access to military psychological services, Russell—working with an advisory board that includes war correspondents and other experts—founded Antioch’s Institute of War Stress Injuries, Recovery, and Social Justice.

The institute is primarily focused on research and advocacy. Russell notes there were times in U.S. history when mental health services were more accessible, such as during the Civil War and World War II, and the institute is also focused on creating awareness of that issue.

“Treating problems early and aggressively with a support system in the military makes the military accountable,” Russell explains. “The institute brings to attention that we used to do this and we stopped doing it.”

The War Stress Institute’s work is supported by Antioch faculty and graduate students, and has included the publication of books and more than 20 articles and book chapters, collaborations on documentary films, and even work on legislation to be presented to Congress as part of a bill within the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act.

Russell’s groundbreaking research on war trauma was featured in the film Thank You for Your Service, an award-winning feature-length documentary narrated by Gary Sinise. It premiered in 2015 and illustrates the epidemic Russell first recognized. A new book, Uphill Challenge: Transforming the Dark Side of Military Mental Healthcare, is slated to be published by the end of 2018 or early 2019. A documentary covering the institute’s work, Strangers at Home, is currently under development.

Since the institute’s founding, Russell has seen an increase in military psychological training and treatment access. He says this work is also part of a larger national effort.

“The military has always been a change agent for society and now we are asking the military to take on mental health as the next social justice issue to lead the way for the private sector.”

Mark Russell