In Honor of Veterans Day, Here’s How Our Servicemen and Women Can Get the Mental Health Help They Need

Michelle Kees Photo

Care For Your Mind acknowledges and appreciates the collaboration of the National Network of Depression Centers in developing this post.

Michelle R. Kees, Ph.D., University of Michigan

On November 11th, our country will pause to celebrate a courageous, resilient group of men and women—our nation’s Veterans. In the words of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Veterans Day is a day to honor these heroes for “their patriotism, love of country, and willingness to serve and sacrifice for the common good.”

As they return home from foreign conflict, these men and women deserve to succeed and thrive in their civilian lives, but may need physical, mental, and/or emotional support in order to do so.

On this important holiday, we wanted to share information about some of the challenges Veterans are facing as they make the transition to life at home—and the programs that are in place to help them.

The numbers
Nearly 2.8 million military service members have been deployed in military actions since 9/11/2001, and more than 50,000 of those have been wounded in combat. In addition, more than 500,000 have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or traumatic brain injury.

Many returning Veterans need help, support, and resources to regain their health, both mentally and physically. And it’s not just health care—they may need assistance navigating their benefits, finding housing, understanding the legal system, and/or entering higher education.

Unfortunately, many Veterans are reluctant to seek care due to concerns about stigma and perceived military norms. Overcoming these hurdles is challenging, but the use of peers—connecting with someone else who is a Veteran—is a novel way to break down these barriers.

Peer programs work wonders
A peer-to-peer program is about one Veteran helping another, something every Veteran can understand and appreciate. The military tenet of nemo resideo (“leave no one behind”) and the importance of the buddy system are essential to the military ethos, giving peer-to-peer models an intuitive appeal. In simple terms, peers “get it.”

The truth is, Veterans are much more likely to accept advice, support, and resources from those who’ve had similar experiences. Shared experience offers more credibility than academic credentials—hence why people will often listen to their peers before they’ll listen to a doctor. Fellow Veterans are on equal footing, which is a powerful step when it comes to breaking down stigma.

Help is available for those who need it
There are many grassroots peer-to-peer programs across the country, as well as established organizations that have long recognized the value of peer support. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, for example, has a peer specialist program embedded throughout its care model.

Other large Veterans’ organizations such as the Wounded Warrior Project have national peer programs, and Vets4Warriors and the Code of Support Foundation have phone-based peer programs to help connect Veterans and their families to services. Military and Veteran Caregivers Network has an online platform and peer matching just for caregivers. PAVE offers peer support for student Veterans on college campuses. TAPS connects family members who have lost a loved one through military service. POS REP even offers a mobile, proximity-based social network expressly for the military Veteran community.

There are also statewide peer programs for service members and Veterans such as Buddy-to-Buddy in Michigan and West Virginia, a program that embeds Veteran peers in the community and offers a toll-free number for Veterans to call for support; zero8hundred in San Diego, Calif., a group that supports transitioning service members and their families; the Military Veteran Peer Network in Texas that connects Veterans and their families to resources; and DryHootch, which offers peer support in Wisconsin, Illinois, and New York.

In addition to these more formal models of support and care, there are many peer programs designed to connect Veterans on a more informal or social level, such as the VFW or American Legion.

The post-9/11 Veteran community has launched a number of newer peer organizations that revolve around activities like athletics, community service, and disaster relief. Team Red White and Blue is dedicated to enriching the lives of Veterans by connecting them to their communities through physical and social activities; Mission Continues brings Veterans together to accomplish service projects in their communities; Team Rubicon deploys Veterans to help during natural disasters; and Growing Veterans brings Veterans together around farming and agricultural sustainability.

Whatever a Veteran may be facing—be it a mental health crisis, an employment issue, a legal woe, or simply a need for more connection and friendship—there are peer programs designed to meet that need.

It’s worth noting that these programs don’t just help the recipients of care or support; the peer volunteers see countless benefits, as well. For these Veteran peers, deployment may have been the most difficult experience in their life, but being able to share that experience in a positive way can be profoundly life-changing. As a psychologist, there’s no treatment I could provide that offers that kind of healing.

Moving forward and expanding outreach
With an increasing number of programs offering peer support to service members and Veterans, we thought it was an opportune time to bring those programs together to learn from each other and to include researchers, funding organizations, VA and military leadership, and Veteran service organizations in the conversation. On November 2nd and 3rd, the University of Michigan M-SPAN (Military Support Programs and Networks) team is convening a national conference specifically around best practices, evaluation, and sustainability of peer programs: the National Summit on Military and Veteran Peer Programs. (More information, including the proceedings of the Summit will be available online.)

As we stop to salute our Veterans this month, I hope everyone will remember that these men and women are a source of great strength in our community; they’re our neighbors, friends, and family and we owe them a helping hand.  If you know a Veteran in need, we hope you’ll share these resources and encourage them to connect with their peers.  And if you’re a Veteran yourself, please reach out to one of the above organizations. They’re here for you—we’re here for you, on Veteran’s Day and always.

Bio

Michelle Kees, Ph.D.
Michelle Kees is a Clinical Psychologist and Associate Professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Michigan.  She also holds dual Clinical and Research Without Compensation (WOC) appointments at the Ann Arbor Veterans Affairs Medical Center (VA).  Michelle is a principal faculty member with M-SPAN, Military Support Programs and Networks.  Her work focuses on interventions to foster resilience in military families; peer-to-peer programs supporting college student Veterans; and large-scale community dissemination and training of clinical providers in evidence-based programs for military and Veteran populations.  She is also the spouse of a pre-9/11 National Guard soldier.


Your Turn

  • What has been your experience with peer-to-peer programs for mental health? What was positive? What needed improvement?
  • What are you doing to support or honor Veterans on this Veterans Day?

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