State of Mind Episode 2: Hidden battles

"CBS Evening News Uncharted: State of Mind" is a new five-part digital series airing in May with new episodes released every Wednesday. The series will examine the state of mental health care in America in conjunction with Mental Health Awareness Month. More than 43 million Americans suffer from mental illness.


A mother's grief

"I have a hole in my heart that is awful ... I never thought this would ever happen until you lose a child. You just can't imagine what happens," Beverly Kittoe explains while trying to hold back tears.

"It's hard for me to want to do things and see people. It's awful, it's awful."

On July 8, 2016, her son Brandon Ketchum took his life after being turned away from the VA Hospital in Iowa City, Iowa.

Brandon served in the Marine Corps from 2004 to 2008, the height of the Iraq War. He missed serving his country after being discharged, so he joined the Army National Guard not long after.

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Beverly Kittoe

CBS News

While serving in the National Guard, he was injured and evacuated to Germany; He ended up having a seizure, and after a lot of testing he was diagnosed with PTSD. When he finally returned to civilian life he clearly wasn't the same man, according to Beverly.

The National Center for PTSD says that between 11 and 20 percent of veterans who served in Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom suffer from PTSD in a given year.

"On July 7 he went to the VA and asked to be admitted. He asked to be admitted to the psych ward and they told him no, that the beds were full and that he needed to go home and take his medication," Beverly said.

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Brandon Ketchum

Ketchum family

Brandon was discovered by his girlfriend the next day. "My boyfriend shot himself. He's already dead," she told the 911 dispatcher. He was discovered surrounded by photos of him and his young daughter.

According to a 2014 report from the Department of Veterans Affairs, an average of 20 veterans died from suicide each day, and approximately 66 percent of all veteran deaths from suicide were the result of firearm injuries.

Beverly says she's angry that the VA didn't do what they were supposed to do to support her son in his hour of need. "When you ask for help, when you ask to be admitted to the psychiatric unit, what's it going to hurt? Let them put them there for 24 hours or 48 hours until they can find a place to send them. That's my main concern over this: When you ask for help give them help. That's the least they can do for our veterans," she said.

"That the approach or the impact of when people are coming back from conflict is -- not just on that service member but on the entire family. And so I totally understand how difficult situations are," said Dr. David Shulkin, the U.S. Secretary for Veterans Affairs, when CBS News asked about Brandon's case.

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Sec. David Shulkin

CBS News

"I can't even imagine the pain that a mother like Brandon's mother is going through. And I do believe that we need to not only reach out and support them, but also learn how we can avoid such a tragedy from ever happening again," Shulkin said.

It has been 10 months since Brandon's suicide, and Beverly still hasn't heard anything regarding his case from the VA and why he was told to go home.

These days it's hard for Beverly to move on and deal with her grief.

"When men and women join the service and deal with what they dealt with overseas, you know some of the things that I heard what Brandon went through … when they come back they should be given every opportunity to get the help that they need. I would like them to send their kids to war and see what happens to them and maybe they will understand that this is a serious problem," she said.

Saving Petty Officer Ryan Chavez

For many veterans, the wounds of war don't remain on the battlefield. "Seeing the first casualties there, seeing the first group of Marines die, it was real. It became real," said former Marines Petty Officer Ryan Chavez.

"When I got back from Iraq, people talk about PTSD and I was thinking, 'well why I don't feel anything like that? That's just a bunch of mumbo jumbo it's non-existent,'" he said.

"Then I started losing concentration. I started having increase nightmares about deployment or being in battle or shooting, getting shot at and all these battle scene where I have to save somebody."

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Ryan Chavez

CBS News

Ryan turned to drinking to ease the pain.

According to the National Center for PTSD, about 1 in 10 soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan seen by the VA have a problem with alcohol or other drugs.

After unsuccessful attempts to get sober, Ryan turned to the VA in New Mexico for help. He was diagnosed with PTSD and dropped out of college. He says the experience with the VA was less than helpful. "I was basically prescribed sleep medications, anti-depressants and basically sent out the door."

The medications didn't help; Ryan attempted suicide twice.

Realizing he could no longer continue down this self-destructive path and finding the services at the VA lacking, he began a search online and found The Veterans for Entheogenic Therapy (VET).

VET organizes trips for veterans to experience ayahuasca ceremonies.

Ayahuasca is a tropical vine native to the Amazon region, noted for its hallucinogenic properties. Although ayahuasca plants are legal in the U.S., brews made using the plant create a controlled Schedule I drug which the DEA deems illegal.

"We don't condone using hallucinogens," said Shulkin, the secretary of Veteran Affairs. "But we do understand that conditions that particularly impact veterans where there aren't approached to therapy that are showing consistent cures that people are looking for new alternatives and exploring different ways and the VA is part of that."

"A while after I took the medicine I started to sift through those questions: 'Why does mankind have to go through this kind of suffering?' and 'What's missing? How do I reconnect? How do I get back to who I was? And who I am. Who am I?'" Ryan said.

"I started receiving answers whether it was produced by my own intuition or whether it was inspired by being in an altered state ... but those answers are some of the sanest I've come to know," he said.

Ryan has made it his mission to help other veterans who are suffering. "I think that's part of what is driving me right now. The prospect of, you know ... being able to help others."

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Rep. Tim Murphy

CBS News

Congressman Tim Murphy of Pennsylvania says that, in general, unconventional therapies are in need for veterans who are struggling with mental health issues, but issued a warning when it comes to treatment that hasn't had enough research.

"As a scientist I look to see where is the evidence, does this work?" Murphy said. "Sometimes the person who just continues to feel hopeless will reach out to other things they may think has an impact upon them and if they do and it's helping them OK, but I want them to be careful about that because sometimes a treatment can be more harmful. And sometimes it can delay effective treatment."

Hope and empowerment

In 1989, Frantz Fortune came to the United States from Haiti to study business. While Fortune was in school, the U.S. was engaged in the Gulf War.

Fortune said the news of soldiers dying in combat troubled him, so it inspired him to want to give back.

"When I heard that number ... for me it was alarming: 300,000 homeless veterans," he said. "How come I was using those guys to give me protection ... now they are homeless and there's nothing I can do? That is what it was for me and so I had to do something."

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Frantz Fortune

CBS News

That was how his idea for the Veterans Empowerment Organization of Atlanta (VEO) was born. The VEO is a transitional and permanent housing solution for homeless veterans in the metro Atlanta area, serving up to 100 veterans at a time.

The VEO offers life-skill training, substance abuse treatments and mental health counseling for homeless vets. They also find vets living-wage jobs.

This type of program can be a welcome change from the VA. "With this program we bring any veteran regardless of a pre-existing condition. We don't ask the questions," Frantz said.

The National Coalition for Homeless Veterans says that about 11 percent of the homeless population are veterans, and half of homeless vets suffer from mental illness.

"When those veterans serve they don't serve the VA ... they don't serve the government. They serve all of us regardless if we're at war," adds Frantz. "It's not the VA's problem or the government's problem. It's all of our problem."