Former Marine Pursues Psychology Degree to Help Other Veterans

As burgeoning mental health concerns among America’s armed forces continue to vex military leaders, some former service personnel are dedicating their lives to help fellow veterans transition more smoothly into civilian life. New England College psychology student and former Marine Cpl. Karen Kelly Barilani is one of them.

The 30-year-old has experienced things most people could never imagine. The Hillsboro, N.H., native entered the Marines in 2001. She reported for boot camp at Parris Island, S.C., then shipped out to Camp Lejeune, N.C., for combat training before heading to communications school at Twenty-Nine Palms, Calif. She eventually deployed to Kuwait, then to Iraq.

“I crossed the border into Iraq the night … the war started. I returned stateside September 13th of 2003, two days after my son’s first birthday.”

Once back stateside, Barilani made it her mission to continue helping people. Working as a police, fire and EMS dispatcher, she was quickly motivated to pursue a psychology degree to better position herself to assist others.

“As you can imagine, a good portion of the calls I take have underlying mental health issues, and I wanted to better understand where these callers were coming from, and how best to respond to them on the phone.”

That desire for understanding to better serve those in trouble deepened as post-traumatic stress and suicide rate statistics among active-duty and former military personnel became more than just numbers reported by the media.

“I found out that a third member of my unit had committed suicide after losing the battle with PTSD,” she recalled. “That hit me hard.”

A Look at the Numbers

With about 1,000 cases of post-traumatic stress disorder diagnosed in soldiers weekly and more than 800 new cases of depression, America’s service personnel are struggling and the infrastructure to support them is not keeping up.

Though large-scale facilities such as the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center have opened to treat soldiers suffering from PTSD and other mental health issues, the diagnoses rates are not slowing.

The Washington Post reports that hundreds of military suicides have been logged since 2011. In April 2014, the Pentagon acknowledged that more than 155,000 troops have PTSD; about 75% of them are combat veterans. The rate of suicide among veterans also is dramatically higher than the average population, USA Today reported. There are about 80 per 100,000 suicides among veterans age 18 to 24. Non-veterans in the same age group have a suicide rate of about 20 per 100,000 people.

Filling the Void

Barilani is on track to receive her bachelor’s degree from New England College in December after accelerated studies positioned her to graduate a semester early. Though she’s debating whether to head straight into the field or continue working as a dispatcher while she goes on to earn a master’s degree, her ultimate goals are set: She will continue her education for the benefit of others. And she will dedicate her career to working with veterans.

Barilani’s hope is that her military experience will enable other veterans to feel more comfortable working with her than they might a civilian counselor or psychologist.

“I will understand the training the service members have been through, the experience of being deployed, of leaving behind family … the dangers faced, losing friends while deployed, the strain of returning stateside, and the adjustments that come after the deployment,” she said.

She also understands veterans’ hesitations about working with civilian counselors.

“I have spoken to quite a few veterans who feel that going to speak to a civilian counselor is not beneficial, as the veteran spends more time explaining the terminology that they use than they do discussing their problems,” she said. “I thought, and still think, that since I have a military background, with a deployment, that I will be better able to understand the terminology that is used and be better able to concentrate my time on dealing with the issues that need to be dealt with.”

Potential is High

While there is a high demand for veterans to enter the field of psychology, the overall need in the field is also great.

The U.S. Department of Labor reports an anticipated job growth rate of 19% for mental health counselors by the year 2024. That number is well above the average for all job fields.

Barilani encourages other veterans to consider careers in psychology.

“I think that having more veterans in the psychology field will be beneficial, as we have a special understanding of each other,” she said.

Her ultimate goal is to help curb the suicide rate that rocked not only her unit, but is being evidenced in the military as a whole.

“There is a high rate of suicide in the United States by veterans, and I want to do what I can to help these men and women win the battle. Although PTSD never really goes away, I can help them get the tools they need to successfully combat it.”

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