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Music helping veterans cope with mental health struggles

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Posted at 12:22 PM, May 24, 2022

Bill Ferraro’s story is intensely individual. However, his inability to seek help is frighteningly familiar. 

“I couldn’t even go outside and deal with people,” Ferraro said. “I did know that I was being withdrawn from everything, but it’s just like, I didn’t care. I didn’t care what I thought or what anybody else thought. I just wanted to be left alone.” 

In public, military members and veterans are lionized and revered, often as one large, abstract group. Rarely do we learn of their specific journeys, journeys to the limits of physical strength and emotional trauma. There’s no easy way to umbrella them all. 

Sherman Gillum is a retired Marine and a senior leader with the National Alliance on Mental Illness. 

He admits a lot of gaps open up when you put everything on one federal agency. From the top-down, the VA offers blanket services for veterans seeking care. 

“A lot of them really just don’t look into what’s available to them. They just kind of go along, go to the hospital, do their sessions at the hospital, and then they are, you know, ‘let me get out of this place,’” Gillum said.

Meanwhile, programs like Guitars for Vets are all over. They are products of nonprofits and individuals trying to give back to those who serve.  Jim Carney runs the chapter in Richmond, Virginia. 

“They view us not only as someone that's going to teach them a skill of being a guitar player, but also someone that they can talk to and open up to and feel safe with,” Carney said.

After ten years of shutting down, Ferraro sought help and began taking medications for his depression. He was assigned a therapy dog named Venmo and became more comfortable again in public. Then he found the guitar. 

“When we play, it’s like, I release all my emotions. And it just sets me free,” Ferraro said.

Johnny Jones served with the Marines. The guitar, for him, relieves physical pain from 15 years ago when he broke his back.  He says for one hour, he has peace.

Today, Ferraro can sit in his session and learn an instrument and know he still feels the pain and burden of his service. He knows his story and his life will never be simple. But he also knows the importance of pushing through it. 

According to Secretary of Veterans’ Affairs Denis McDonough, as of February 2021, the pandemic led to 19.7 million canceled, delayed, or moved appointments. One year into the pandemic, the backlog of compensation and pension claims nearly tripled to 212,000. More than 10,300 veterans and 131 veterans affairs staff lost their lives as a direct result of the pandemic.