Reflecting on the 13 years between returning home in 2008 from his fourth tour in the U.S. Army and being connected with the Road Home Program at RUSH in 2021, Paul Whitmer describes the time as being in “a provider gray zone.”
“I bounced from provider to provider, to Veterans Affairs, and never made any traction,” he said. “Just at the point when I thought nobody could help, along came the Road Home.”
Whitmer served three tours in Iraq and one tour in Afghanistan. About two weeks after coming home, he experienced a panic attack while driving on an interstate, unable to steer, accelerate or brake. He was also having short-term memory issues. After undergoing tests at a Veterans Affairs, or VA, medical center, Whitmer was diagnosed with traumatic brain injury, PTSD, generalized anxiety disorder and major depressive disorder. He was prescribed medications for his symptoms, but he felt stuck in stasis.
“I wanted to be back to pre-trauma levels of relationships,” Whitmer said. “I knew it was possible, and when I finally met Blake, I started making meaningful change.”
Whitmer was connected with Blake Schroedter, PsyD, director of the Road Home Program’s Effingham outpatient clinic and an Army National Guard veteran who served tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“Blake’s got the psychology degree and military experience put together, and he’s spot on,” Whitmer said. “I’ve never had a psychologist I worked with who had experiences that so closely matched mine.”
In addition to regular therapy sessions, Whitmer participates in a combat support group and received a stellate ganglion block treatment. Road Home researchers are studying this treatment — an injection of a local anesthetic into the neck — in combination with cognitive processing therapy to evaluate its efficacy in helping individuals with hard-to-treat PTSD. Whitmer received this treatment in March 2021, and it drastically improved the progress he was able to make, he said.
Today Whitmer can do things that once presented major challenges, like going out to eat and shopping for groceries, and he said his relationship with his wife has never been better. His success story is just one example of what’s possible through expanded access to care.
Road Home Program leaders estimate that Illinois would need to add about 200 mental health providers to fill a current gap in care. All but five of Illinois’ 102 counties have a shortage of mental health professionals, according to the U.S. Health Resources & Services Administration.
To support the significant veteran population in rural Illinois, the Road Home Program opened its Effingham clinic, located 60 miles south of Decatur, in 2017 and aims to expand access to care through a new program called the Rural Mental Health Training Initiative. This initiative uses the evidence-based Common Elements Treatment Approach, or CETA, to provide community-based mental health providers with the tools and training to help people address common challenges like trauma, depression, anxiety and substance abuse.
“A lot of providers are not delivering evidence-based treatment,” Schroedter said. “According to the VA’s statistics, about 13% of mental health providers outside of the VA are culturally competent to deliver effective care to veterans, and so we think this is the way forward.”
(Photo caption: U.S. Army veteran Paul Whitmer, right, of Bloomington, Illinois, bounced between multiple providers and saw little improvement in his mental health until connecting with the Road Home Program’s Effingham clinic in 2021.)