How much do you trust your bartender? Sure, you rely on him to make your gin and tonic with Tanqueray when you ask for it instead of slipping in some bottom-shelf swill. But would you trust the person who pours your pints to know the difference between a guy having a bad day and one who’s ready to put a gun in his mouth?
Researchers at Ohio State University believe that you can. Specifically, they’re looking to bartenders employed by the Veterans of Foreign Wars to identify vets who have symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.
In a pilot study released last week, the researchers surveyed bartenders at VFW bars—where membership is restricted to people who served in combat zones—to gauge the relationship between the beer-slingers and their patrons. Of the 71 bar-keeps who responded, 73 percent said they thought of their customers “like family,” and 70 percent said patrons routinely voiced personal concerns to them.
“The bartenders are willing to learn how to spot the warning signs of PTSD and direct them to services that can help,” says study author Keith Anderson, Ph.D.
That’s encouraging, but only around 14 percent of the bartenders felt like they already knew how to recognize the symptoms of PTSD. To be fair, the condition is tough to diagnose: Symptoms range from nightmares to depression, headaches, and angry outbursts. At its worst, PTSD can be associated with violent behavior, drug and alcohol abuse, and even suicide.
It’s no secret that the military and VA health care system is overburdened. As many as 14 percent of troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan experience some kind of mental health difficulty. There are now around 1.7 million veterans of those two wars.
Last spring the Army Times reported that on average, 18 veterans commit suicide every day—and there are nearly 1,000 attempts every month. But the suicides are a symptom of a much larger problem among veterans, says Tom Tarantino, a former Army captain who now lobbies Congress and the Department of Defense on behalf of the group Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA). “These soldiers shouldn’t get to the point where they’re suicidal. They should be spotted much earlier on and get some type of treatment or counseling.”
Tarantino points to several recent successes, like a Congressional mandate that every single returning soldier meets with a health care professional both as soon as they arrive back in the U.S. and 9 months afterward, when PTSD symptoms are most likely to surface. Plus directives from Defense Secretary Robert Gates that made it harder for someone to receive a “personality disorder” medical discharge—a way of essentially kicking troops to the curb without medical or disability benefits.
But what seems to best help combat veterans is simply spending time with other combat veterans—which is where VFW bartenders come in. Their patrons are forthcoming, comfortable sharing a drink among other vets who have went through similar experiences. Today’s vets, however, are flocking to the Internet, not the VFW hall. IAVA’s veterans-only forum, for example, has around 16,000 active members—so while the bartender outreach could have some impact, it may miss new vets who need the help the most. As the staggering number of suicides attest, too many soldiers try to buck up and fight through the mental pain on their own—an unfortunate consequence of the military’s bear-any-burden ethos.
So can bartenders help? Certainly, and Anderson is hoping to work with the VFW to set up a training and referral program. But that alone won’t be enough to really make a dent in the problem.
“You need a Don Draper, a Madison Avenue-type who can make billboards and Super Bowl ads letting people know how to get help,” says Tarantino. “Instead of just reaching out to veterans, you need to talk to the American people, civilians included—to make this a national issue, because it is.”