When Kevin Graham, a senior ROTC cadet, was put on depression medication as a junior at the University of Kentucky, his parents Mark and Carol Graham thought it was just a phase.

However, later that year, 21-year-old Kevin, who was studying to become an army doctor, committed suicide. His family and friends hadn’t seen it coming.

“We knew he had been sad,” Mark says. “We didn’t know he could die from being too sad.” 

SPEAKING OUT: Signing ceremony with General Ingram and Barbara Van Dahlen. Photo: Lloyd Wolfe

Mark served in the U.S. Army for 35 years, and his son Jeffrey, 23, was as a second lieutenant in the Army. In 2004, Jeff died in a roadside bombing in Iraq one year after Kevin had passed.

Serving in the military had always been a family affair, but discussing mental health was never part of the conversation, Graham says.

The drawdown and the rise of PTSD

As the war is winding down, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression among troops returning home has been on the rise.

Approximately 20 percent of veterans returning from combat are now battling PTSD. In addition, 20 percent of troops returning home suffer from traumatic brain injuries, according to Barbara Van Dahlen, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist.

Van Dahlen’s organization, Give an Hour, provides free counseling to service members, veterans and their families. Since its inception eight years ago, its network has expanded to include about 7,000 mental health professionals across the nation. The public can search for these professionals by zip code on the web. Those in need can get help in person, by phone—and in the near future, online.

Answering the call for help

With her father serving in World War II and having grown up during the Vietnam era, war has clearly played an important role in Van Dahlen’s life. But she had not thought of working directly with troops until one day when her 9-year-old daughter, Gracie, was curious about a homeless veteran with a “help” sign on a street corner.

“Gracie asked, ‘How can we let this happen to these men who served our country?’” Van Dahlen recalls. “And I thought, ‘We can’t let this happen.’  If I am willing to give my time, there must be other mental health professionals willing to give theirs.”

Today, the group collaborates with nonprofit organizations, such as Detroit Tigers pitcher Justin Verlander’s Wins for Warriors program, which focuses on ensuring that veterans have access to mental healthcare. Give an Hour has also assisted during natural disasters and national tragedies, from Hurricane Sandy to the shootings in Newtown, Conn.

THANKING OUR WARRIORS: Detroit Tigers’ pitcher, Justin Verlander, joins Dr. Barbara Van Dahlen and Meredith Knopp, Vice President of Programs for The Mission Continues to raise awareness.

Stifling the stigma

One of the main goals of the organization is to reduce the stigma of mental health disorders among troops and all groups of people in society, Van Dahlen says.

Graham, who sits on the executive board of Give an Hour, and his wife share Van Dahlen’s mission today—and they’ve dedicated their lives to raising awareness about mental health disorders among troops.

Not only do they speak across the country, but they have established the Jeffrey C. and Kevin A. Graham Memorial Fund to provide the "Question, Persuade, Refer" suicide prevention program at the University of Kentucky. The couple also founded the Jeffrey and Kevin Graham Memorial Endowed Lectureship in Psychology for the study of depression and suicide prevention at Cameron University, in Lawton, Okla., where their daughter, Melanie, attended school to become a registered nurse.

“I wouldn’t get up and tell people about the stigma if I wasn’t part of the stigma myself,” Graham says. “So often people need help, but you have to have good peripheral vision and educate yourself to be able to know.”

Van Dahlen echoes what Graham believes and pointed out the best way to begin to help troops in need is by engaging in conversation and being interested in what they have to say.

“If you take the extra time, people are much more likely to share their stories. By developing a relationship you create a lovely opportunity where you’re supporting them and they’re supporting you,” she says. “And you find out that we’re more alike than we are different.”