By Nicky Osborne, Director of Massachusetts Rehabilitation Commission (MRC) - Brain Injury & Statewide Specialized Community Services (BI&SSCS)
March is National Brain Injury Awareness Month, when the Massachusetts Rehabilitation Commission (MRC) redoubles its efforts to promote awareness that a brain injury can happen anytime, anywhere, to anyone – a brain injury does not discriminate. In fact, every year 1.7 million Americans sustain a brain injury. The estimated cost of traumatic brain injury (TBI) nationally, including treatment and lost productivity, is $76.3 billion per year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In Massachusetts alone, 51,000 residents —indeed our loved ones, friends, acquaintances, neighbors, and coworkers -- sustain a TBI every year.
Lately, TBI has been in the news as the public is riveted by the remarkable story of former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and her recovery, as well as by recent research on the effects of repeated concussion among both high school football players and professional athletes such as Marc Savard of the Bruins hockey team. There is another group of Americans for whom TBI has become a distinguishing and invisible wound: returning veterans of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In general, TBI is a disruption of brain function typically due to a blow or jolt to the head, from incidents such as car crashes, falls, physical assaults and gunshots. No two brain injuries are alike: lasting effects can include a combination of memory problems; issues concerning judgment and socially acceptable behavior; high levels of frustration; fatigue; barriers to physical ability (including speech, vision, hearing, sensation) and chronic pain. Soldiers serving in Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) and Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) are particularly vulnerable to TBI from warfare and the impact of Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs).
MRC’s Brain Injury & Statewide Specialized Community Services (BI&SSCS) department is proud to have been awarded a federal grant for $530,000 that focuses on identifying women and minority OEF/OIF veterans in the state who may have sustained TBI and are traditionally underserved. Perceptions about the military culture may make soldiers feel they have to “tough it out” if they are experiencing any problems after an injury. Women and minority service members especially seem reluctant to self-identify and seek help. BI&SSCS is working on reaching out to these service members and to better understand their unique needs as well as the cultural and other barriers that may delay serving them.
Three upcoming MRC events are geared toward promoting brain injury awareness:
- Weekend Retreat for Veterans with TBI in Groton (March 16-18) – this 3-day event offers education about brain injury, workshops, resources, holistic methods for stress management, accommodations and meals for returning veterans with TBI, including but not limited to women and service members from culturally diverse groups, and their families. Small group sessions will be facilitated by clinicians in a safe, supportive environment. This event is offered in collaboration with Project New Hope, an organization offering retreats as a way to improve quality of life for combat veterans by helping them heal, cope, reintegrate and reconnect with their families. More information is available at their website (www.projectnewhopema.org).
- Screening Clinics will be held throughout the month of March at the New England Shelter for Homeless Veterans, the Soldiers' Home in Chelsea, the Veterans Center in Hyannis, the Worcester Veterans Center, and the Springfield Veterans Clinic. Confidential diagnostic interviews and screening by neuropsychologists will be offered to OIF/OEF veterans who may have sustained a brain injury in combat or from other causes during military service. In addition, staff from the BI&SSCS-Statewide Head Injury program (SHIP) will be onsite to assist with filling out applications for services from SHIP. SHIP coordinators will also provide information and resources at these regional screening clinics. For exact dates of these clinics, please contact Felisha Bennett at 617-204-3852 or Felisha.Bennett@ state.ma.us.
- Symposium for Women and Minority Veterans – recognizing that the military experience of women veterans and service members of diverse cultures often differs from that of the mainstream armed forces, this conference will explore the unique needs and challenges related to gender and cultural roles, particularly within the family structure. Participants will have the opportunity to share experiences and receive support from their peers, as well as learn more about TBI and available services and supports. This symposium will be held on June 16 at UMass-Boston and on June 23 at Springfield College. Secretary of Veterans’ Services Coleman Nee, is expected to deliver the opening remarks at both events.
Promoting awareness of brain injury as what is sometimes a lifelong condition is the first step toward MRC’s goal of early and equal access to services, supports and compassion. BI&SSCS hopes that grant opportunities such as this one will help Veterans with TBI overcome stigma and find the strength and courage to seek help and choose healing.
For more information about any MRC BI&SSCS or SHIP activities for Veterans, please contact Felisha Bennett at 617-204-3852.
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