Military mentality, vulnerable veterans

A Veterans Day Q&A with U-M brain specialist – & Air Force lieutenant colonel – Michael Seyffert, M.D.

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Michael Seyffert, M.D., a neurologist and U-M psychiatrist-in-training, is also a flight surgeon in the Air National Guard.

Veterans’ issues get special focus during Veterans Day week, but Dr. Michael Seyffert focuses on the brains of our recently returned service men and women, and veterans from past conflicts, all year round.

He’s in the last year of psychiatry training at U-M, after more than a decade in practice as a neurologist and sleep specialist. That gives him a double perspective on the brain.

Meanwhile, his service as a lieutenant colonel and flight surgeon in the 127th Wing of the Air National Guard at Selfridge Air Force Base, and experience treating patients on the psychiatry service at the VA Ann Arbor Healthcare System, helps him understand the demands of military service and the challenges veterans face. 

Q: What are the biggest brain-related challenges facing veterans this Veterans’ Day?

A: The military mindset of ‘I don’t need help’ needs to change, to allow the injured to seek help for depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and other issues.

The VA and others are doing the best they can to offer assistance, and our Depression Center at U-M offers a lot of programs for military families and veterans. But we have to do a better job of making current and past service members aware of everything that’s available. And individuals have to take the step of seeking help.

VeteransCrisisLine-160x600-5We have to do a better job of helping the individual troop, airman or marine reintegrate. When they start their service, they have basic training – we need to do the inverse when they come back to society. We need better research on what works, and it will likely take a combination of in-person and electronic approaches.

Q: Has the mindset changed at all, with all the attention to PTSD, traumatic brain injury and suicide among recently returned veterans?

A: Yes, it has begun to change from 10 to 20 years ago. But too many people still go without help. Even I have experienced this. My best friend became suicidal when he came back, and I, who was his best friend, was the least aware. And he’s not the only buddy I’ve lost. When you can see someone like that – and to completely miss that – you know there are a lot of vets out there who need help and aren’t getting it.

Q: Is it just veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan who need help?

A: We definitely need to address the issues faced by those who have returned from those venues, not just the members of the regular active duty serve members, but also the National Guard and reservists who were overtaxed and overburdened in these recent conflicts. Many of them have three or four issues at one time, and we can’t just focus on one, or one at a time.

But at the same time, we’re seeing a resurgence of issues in the Vietnam War generation – the ones who came home from conflict and were spat upon, or had no one shake their hand and thank them for their service. They may have gone a long time without getting necessary help, and now 40 years later, we’re seeing worsening of their PTSD along with a growing load of medical and mental health issues. They need to seek help too.

Q: After you finish your psychiatry training, you’ll be spending two years studying veterans’ mental health issues in the Robert Wood Johnson Clinical Scholars program. What do you hope to do?

A: I want to explore the use of mobile apps that could improve communication for vets who have a difficult time coming in and talking to other vets in the traditional programs. If you have PTSD, anything that reminds you of your service can be difficult, so you may not be willing or able to come in to a place like the VA. So mobile and Internet approaches will be very important, tying in to mobile messaging so vets can be in touch if they change from a neutral to a high risk status.

I’m also interested in the interactions between sleep and psychiatric and neurological conditions. There is a lot still to be understood there.

And, I’m interested in issues related to psychiatry and the law, and I’m learning more about it through a Rappeport Fellowship from the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law.SEYQUOTE1

Q: What else is going on at U-M and the Ann Arbor VA that might help veterans today and in the future?

A: The team of VA and U-M mental health researchers known as SMITREC is doing great work. They have a fantastic database of information from veterans across the country, which they can mine to look for patterns, and possible solutions.

If we can ask the right questions and mine the data correctly, I think we’ll be able to better understand the impact of things that were present before deployment, and experiences related to deployment including frequency, length and exposures to combat or blasts.

Take the next step:

  • If you’re a Veteran in crisis or concerned about one, contact the Confidential Veterans Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255 and Press 1. Or chat online, or send a text message to 838255 to receive confidential support 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year.This service is open to any current or past service member, including National Guard & reserve, or family/friends who are concerned about a veteran or service member.
  • Read about Dr. Jon Eliason, a vascular surgeon an Air Force veteran who served in Iraq, and his work to develop life-saving heart-devices for injured soldiers.
  • Learn more about the free programs offered by the U-M Depression Center for military families and returning veterans.


new_logos_180x1806For more than 160 years, the University of Michigan Health System has been a national leader in advanced patient care, innovative research to improve human health and comprehensive education of physicians and medical scientists. The three U-M hospitals have been recognized numerous times for excellence in patient care, including a #1 ranking in Michigan and national rankings in many specialty areas by U.S. News & World Report.