FARMINGTON – College senior Michael MacKay started working recently on a study that could redefine how veterans get help dealing with the mental and emotional scars they bring home from war.

The 21-year-old psychology student joined a team developing a new post traumatic stress disorder treatment program at the Veterans Affairs hospital in Togus.

The hospital is testing innovative group therapy techniques for veterans and their families, as well as devising ways to connect more patients and doctors by using the Internet. The project’s goal is to find new ways to treat the thousands of Mainers affected by the debilitating disorder.

MacKay has spent the last month doing research for the project, getting his first real-world experience with the work he hopes to do after graduating from the University of Maine at Farmington.

The project has shown him the daily frustrations and challenges veterans face because of the disorder, with symptoms that can range from intense flashbacks and severe depression to social problems and anxiety, he said.

Despite the fact he has months left to go in the year-long project, MacKay has already decided the work being done by the staff at the medical center is something he hopes to build on in the future.

“They’re trying to give veterans a good path to start piecing things back together and getting their life back on track,” he said.

MacKay hopes to get into a doctorate program for clinical psychology, which is similar to the fields of his supervisors at VA Maine Healthcare Systems-Togus.

He has enrolled in several programs, but wanted to work at the hospital before he makes a choice, he said.

“I knew I wanted to work with veterans, but I just needed to find out if I could handle it,” he said.

His time at the hospital gave MacKay, of Wilton, the answer to the question.

“I’ve learned how actually seeing people get better is very rewarding, and knowing that you’re helping a (veteran) population that really deserves the help is really important to me,” MacKay said.

The new program is trying to reach out to veterans, many of whom have said they need more options to make it easier for them to access treatment, said Dr. David Meyer, a staff psychologist at the hospital and MacKay’s supervisor.

Group therapy sessions for veterans and their families seek to expand on existing efforts at the hospital, especially those trying to get everyone affected by the disorder involved in the treatment, Meyer said.

Getting family members involved, for example, avoids problems patients have with applying what they learned in treatment at home, he said.

A veteran may learn in treatment why he is having a flashback or struggling to connect with other people, but he returns home and gets frustrated when family members don’t understand his behavior, Meyer said.

“The family or spouse doesn’t know what’s happening and they personalize it and think they’re doing something wrong, which can cause problems,” he said.

There is a lot of existing outreach and education efforts at the VA especially for family members of veterans, and the group therapy sessions are designed to build on that, Meyer said.

The program also is intended to incorporate the Internet and video-conferencing technology, with the goal of giving families and veterans more ways to attend treatment from home or other offices, he said.

With many veterans living in rural communities statewide, distance to a VA center becomes a big hurdle between them and treatment, Meyer said.

Another challenge in treating veterans is getting them to start a program as soon as they return from war, something the focus on family members and video conferencing may solve, Meyer said.

“It’s very rare that they come in seeking help until everything falls apart, and the VA needs to be as flexible as possible to make it happen sooner,” he said.

David Robinson can be contacted at 861-9287 or at [email protected]