By Varun Chaturvedi
A tireless advocate for biomedical research in brain-based illnesses, Dr. Robert Urlano recently spoke at the Military Post-traumatic Stress Disorder forum—a special event at the world-famous Society for Neuroscience conference in November.
Having fought in the Vietnam and Gulf Wars himself, Urlano is one of the world’s leading advocates of biomedical research for treating military-related injuries and mental illnesses and recently became a distinguished professor of psychiatry at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Maryland.
At his talk, Urlano outlined the focus of current research directed at understanding the causes of mental illness as a result of war. He spoke about how progress has been made in the field, but stressed that more attention is needed for any significant findings to be made. Because of the devastation caused by the two global wars of the early to mid 20th century, both scientists and researchers have been curious to find solutions for assisting traumatized veterans. A staggering 22 percent of returning veterans showed signs of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and 70 percent of those individuals never recovered from the trauma. Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy realized the potency of war trauma and immediately began creating programs and laws that not only assisted veterans when coming back from war, but also protected them from maltreatment by private agencies.
Urlano explained that Presidents Kennedy and Eisenhower were the pioneers for trauma research, helping create the Trauma Center of the National Institute of Health (NIH). Because of the emphasis given to the veterans of war, the United States has mandated over $12 million to find remedies for trauma, mental illnesses and cognitive inabilities. As a result, Urlano concluded his talk by emphasizing university-run researches.
“We need to get as many people involved in this project,” Urlano said. “If everyone is involved in this field of research, we will make significant strides to not only learning about these mental illnesses, but also assisting those people who risk their lives everyday on the battlefield.” Urlano suggests that students will play a remarkable role in helping find a solution for these debilitating health conditions.
After the conference, Urlano spoke with PROSPECT about mental illnesses and his research.
PROSPECT: What compelled you to be such a proponent in the fight against mental illnesses such as trauma and PTSD?
URLANO: It really started when I was a child. My father fought in both World Wars and I remember the morning when my mother received a phone call from the military medical unit and was told that my father had suffered severe injury to his head. It wasn’t till I was your age when I realized what had happened to him. And I guess ever since then, I have always wanted to find a reason for what caused such profound damage in the brain, and the psychological effects to it, especially during war.
PROSPECT: That is a remarkable story. Had the government subsidized your father with something like a special veteran’s healthcare plan? Was he taken care of by the healthcare system?
URLANO: Well that is definitely a component to the story that I felt was a bit shocking. Over 70 percent of injured veterans were literally ignored after World War II and I would not be surprised if some of the homeless people on the streets today are veterans from either world wars. With my father, fortunately, it was a different issue. He was taken care of, and received any kind of needed medical care immediately. But I really felt for the other unfortunate, just as deserving veterans who did not have the opportunity to remedy their conditions to a doctor, and that is what drives me to change the system.
PROSPECT: With that said, you have been through a lot considering the amount of time, energy and soul you have invested into your initiative. Was there a time during your experience where you were completely surprised by the outcome?
URLANO: Oh certainly. In fact that is what makes me get up in the morning everyday. I live by the surprises and the miracles because I really believe in them. My whole life has been one surprise after another, and quite frankly, with out them, living life with dreams and aspirations is almost contradictory. But the biggest surprise I would have to say is when Kennedy had mentioned he was going to add the Trauma Center to NIH on the radio. Watching that moment, even though I was probably embarking on being 12 years old, was a memorable event to say the least. I had not the slightest idea of what it meant, but I believed in opportunity; I believed in miracles.
PROSPECT: What would be one last final suggestion to the PROSPECT audience that you would like to add?
URLANO: Firstly, thank you Varun for the interview. This is the first time I am being interviewed by a student-run political science magazine organization. Secondly, I would really like to say to all the students, get involved. Students, you are the bridge to the future. Quite honestly, us Baby Boomers are getting old and we are getting to that stage of mental degradation. We need students to get involved and learn about the vast intricacies of the brain, and help us old folk too. But more importantly, you are getting involved not just to learn, but to make a difference, and that in it of itself is very important to say the least. We need all the help we can get, and just because you are a student, does not necessarily mean you have no voice or significance to research; you have every potential to find the needed answers as I do, except I do this for a living. All in all, get involved and you will get the answers.
Photo courtesy of Truthout.org.