Can Embracing the Recovery Model Lead to Better Mental Health Treatment Outcomes for Veterans?

Today, we continue to honor our veterans with a personal story from CFYM reader Toni Ankrom, U.S Navy, Retired.  Recognizing the impact peer support had in her own life, Toni pays it forward by advocating for access to quality mental health care for Veterans and challenges mental health organizations to continue to embrace the Recovery treatment model. 

I am a Gulf War Era retired, disabled Navy Veteran. I spent 20 years in the U.S. Navy. During ten of those active duty years I lived with bipolar disorder symptoms. I experienced most of the symptoms of hypomania and some of mania. I would stay awake for many days on end…energy, energy, energy…fast, fast, fast, with unusual creative thinking. These episodes were followed by the darkest depression which my wonderful husband helped me through – over and over again. The military finally treated the depression with medication calling it “situational depression” and ignored the mania because I could work and work like the Energizer Bunny. I was very lucky to have such a supportive husband. He made sure I got up, showered, ate, and looked presentable for duty. I have to say that I didn’t feel presentable.  I wanted to crawl into a closet and cover up with a blanket.

Advocating for lives lived in wellness

On my own, I discovered recovery tools such as journaling, understanding triggers for both the mania and depression, and talking to friends with whom I felt safe to share what I was going through. When I retired, the military and the Veterans Administration finally acknowledged I had some form of bipolar disorder. I started receiving medication treatment for my bipolar symptoms which helped. However, talk therapy and access to a counselor or psychiatrist was very spotty at best.  Most appointments were scheduled six months or more between visits.

For many years, I was not able to see the same mental health professional for treatment more than a couple of times in a row. I specifically asked about support groups, but both the Navy Hospital and Veterans Outpatient Clinic had no resources to offer. Support group services were limited to Veterans experiencing war zone related Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or substance abuse.

Lacking support, I did my own research and found a Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance group in my city and started attending meetings. My advocacy led me to start new support groups and help train people to co-facilitate. I became active with state-level mental health organizations and attended workshops and conferences.

Through my work with DBSA, I supported the creation of the Florida peer specialist training and certification system. To date hundreds of peers have been certified in Florida.These people are employed at VA hospitals, private hospitals and community behavioral health centers. As peers they provide inspiration and support to individuals, veterans and family members of people living with mental health and substance abuse conditions.

 Implementing the recovery model at the VA

Over the years I have observed improvements in how the VA has provided services to Veterans as they moved from a medical treatment-only model to a Recovery model. Today veterans have quicker access to mental health care and receive the benefit of the integration of both mental health and substance abuse services. Availability of support groups through the Veterans Administration and civilian organizations such as DBSA, NAMI, AA, CA, NA, Schizophrenics Anonymous, and MHA are growing and now available to both active duty members and OEF/OIF Veterans.  Many VA clinics even have diverse programs that help Veterans integrate back into civilian life and obtain meaningful employment.

More work to be done

The concept of Recovery is now commonplace. New and different medications are coming out all the time which give people more choices. Innovative therapies and treatments are available. Evidence-based treatments are being developed and confirmed.  All of these options provide more choices for self-direction when traveling along the pathway of Recovery. The acceptance of Recovery as an option has advanced significantly during the time of my own journey from active duty to veteran; but, there is still room for improvement. Social stigma holds me and others back from realizing our full potential in life. Recovery continues to be a journey that many vets including myself travel. Military and VA acceptance of mood disorders as real and treatable conditions is no longer a policy for discussion, but a requirement in providing health care to all soldiers past and present.

Your Turn

  • Have you experienced the Recovery treatment model offered through the VA?
  • Would you change anything about how mental health care is offered through the VA?
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