Jesse Canella recalls the depression that gripped him when he returned home to Ridgewood in June 2008 after serving in Iraq.
"I felt such a disconnect from people," he said. As bad as it was for him, though, he knew that many of his comrades were suffering far worse with the conditions that often afflict military people – alienation, clinical depression, post-traumatic stress disorder.
"I have a friend who won’t take his sunglasses off because he can’t look people in the eyes," the former Marine said. "I have friends who won’t leave the house, who can’t sleep through the night, who have suicidal thoughts."
Now a civilian, Canella, 24, has helped form Honor Vet, a non-profit organization that will offer veterans as well as active-duty service people an alternative way of getting help: a website to connect them with mental health professionals online — using social-networking technology that is familiar and comfortable to the Facebook generation.
More than 1.6 million American troops have been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan since 9/11, and many have come home with mental health issues. A study in the New England Journal of Medicine estimated one in eight suffer from PTSD symptoms; another estimates that up to 300,000 have developed some mental health problem. But many don’t see a psychiatrist or psychologist, some because they fear the stigma of being labeled mentally ill, some because they won’t or can’t acknowledge that they need help.
The website, honorvet.org, is the brainchild of Canella and a friend he served with in Iraq: Jim McCain, the son of U.S. Sen. John McCain, the 2008 presidential candidate and onetime POW.
"We wanted to create something different, that would provide real life skills at a personal level; where if you have a question, we give you an answer right away," Canella said.
The organization held its kickoff fund-raiser in New York City on Thursday, raising about $140,000, Canella said. "That’s a lot better than we expected," he added.