When Veterans and Their Families Come for Help: What Service Providers Need to Know

10 04 2015

Guest author: Erica Zulawski, MS, MSW candidate

Military welcome home Jack

Through my personal and professional experience with veterans, I have come to understand the unique needs and challenges some male and female veterans experience when readjusting to civilian life. Many veterans say that the military has forever changed them, especially if deployed to areas of combat or conflict.

Soldier with flag FREE morguefile0001980652808

When PTSD is not diagnosed and treated…

My father was a Vietnam veteran. I would like to share some parts of our family’s story.

  • My father would wake up in the middle of the night screaming from awful nightmares and night terrors. I had never heard a man or anyone scream like that before. I was afraid. My siblings and I did not know what was happening to him, and there was no one to explain anything.
  • My dad drank a lot while I was growing up, and he would isolate himself from friends and family. He was there physically, but rarely emotionally available.
  • I resented him for missing a great part of my childhood because of his alcoholism. I also resented the military in many ways because it had taken away my father’s ability to be a good dad and live a meaningful and satisfying life.
  • He was always angry and irritable with overwhelming emotion, always on edge. Family members were also always on edge hoping not to upset him. My father’s illness controlled and dictated the temperament of each of us.

Vet Blog Post Man a with drink photo from FreeDigitalPhotos.net

  • Though severely “rocked” by his traumatic Vietnam experiences, my father would still proudly hang the American flag each morning. I would say that he struggled with a “love/hate relationship”, a love for his country and the military, but hatred for what he lost of himself in the war.
  • He was a very broken person, consumed with emotional and physical pain, suffering every day and drank heavily to self-treat his symptoms. He desperately needed help, but had no idea that he needed it and was deteriorating with each passing day. My mother had no idea how to get him help, so he suffered in silence until he wasn’t able to do it anymore. There was the lack of support and services available for my father and for us as a family to cope with his PTSD, depression and alcoholism. We felt helpless, scared and overwhelmed.

The only time I ever heard him talk about Vietnam was when his “war buddies” would come over to our house to talk and drink. I still don’t know what he endured in the military. When I began working with veterans, I gradually started to understand that what my father was struggling with wasn’t uncommon among that era of veterans: Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and depression from his military service.

Why is it important to understand and identify the unique challenges and needs of veterans and their families?

Soldier hands behind back FREE morguefile0001566431353

I believe there is a great need for social workers  and other human service professionals within the community (both veteran and non-veteran affiliated agencies and organizations) to become educated on serving veterans and their families so that they can best meet their needs. Policies and program are needed to help veterans and families develop coping skills and find supports. Some of the reasons are listed below.

  • Many veterans fail to get the help they need because of social stigma and barriers to health care and other services. Some non-veteran affiliated organizations and agencies may provide services and treatment to veterans because they may not qualify for some or any VA benefits or health care because of their type of discharge; were never activated from a Reserve or National Guard unit; and/or have some apprehension about using the VA system. There are others who are unaware of the benefits and services available to them. Please refer to the link in the Resource section to learn more about the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs: Health benefits and eligibility.
  • Being culturally competent and sensitive may decrease the challenges in providing effective services to veterans and their family members. Some veterans will present with chronic and acute mental, social, and physical conditions, as well as being at risk for: unemployment, poverty, homelessness, substance abuse, depression, and PTSD that may be attributed to military related trauma and experiences.
  • To alleviate the backlog of specialty appointments, particularly mental and behavioral health appointments, the VA and Congress implemented the Veterans Choice Card program in August 2014. Veterans who meet the criteria for the program will be allowed to seek health care services outside of the VA system. Please refer to the link in the Resource section to learn more about Veterans Access, Choice, and Accountability Act of 2014.
  • Veterans who live in rural areas may not have easy access to VA health care and services and are more likely be treated in non-VA affiliated agencies and organizations. Providers in these demographic areas need to be familiar with their unique needs and challenges. Please refer to the link in the Resource section for more information about Rural Assistance Center: Veterans and Returning Soldiers.
  • Both VA and non-VA affiliated providers need to understand the complexity of deployment and how multiple deployments can impact the mental, emotional and psychological well-being of a person and their ability to reintegrate and adapt back into civilian life, their community and their family. Please refer to the link in the Resource section to learn more about How Deployment Stress Affects Families.
  • Providers need to be aware of signs and symptoms to recognize if the person they are working with has been in the military. In addition, providers need to be aware of referring agencies and organizations and the services available to veterans and their families if the provider is unable to offer needed services. It’s important that the provider not be afraid to ask appropriate and sensitive questions about the person’s military experiences to gain a better understanding in an effort to treat the “whole” person.
  • VA and non-VA agencies and organizations can network to use the best assessment tools, interventions and treatments for veterans and their families.  Please refer to the link in the Resource section to learn more about the Joining Forces initiative.
  • Agencies and organizations can create an environment where veterans and their families feel safe to reach out and find the support and guidance they need. Make it as simple and convenient as possible, and remove barriers to rigid, structured and complex systems that may feel overwhelming and burdensome. Many who try to access services and treatment will either give up or not bother if it’s too confusing and/or has the potential to trigger or retraumatize.
  • Consider the veteran’s life before the military. Think about adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) that may contribute to the issues and problems that the veteran is struggling with- consider pre-military trauma. Think about how the veteran’s complex trauma, pre-military, peri-military and post-military experiences have impacted and affected their overall life within their roles and responsibilities to the family structure, the community, their jobs and school. Please refer to the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study link in the Resource section.
  • It is beneficial to ensure that services and treatment for veterans and their families are implemented in a way that provides the five principles of trauma-informed care: safety, empowerment, trustworthiness, collaboration and choice. Please refer to the link in the Resource section for more information about Trauma-Informed Care (TIC).
  • Children of service members and veterans also have unique needs and challenges, and can be at risk for emotional and mental health issues like secondary PTSD from being affected by their parents’ military related trauma. Please refer to the link in the Resource section for more information about Overall Effects on Children.

Resources

Online self-study course: Trauma-Informed Care: Working with Veterans, Service Providers and the Military Culture with Patrick Welch, PhD, Sgt. USMC (Ret)

U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs: Health benefits and eligibility

Veterans Access, Choice, and Accountability Act of 2014

Rural Assistance Center: Veterans and Returning Soldiers

How Deployment Stress Affects Families

Joining Forces initiative

The Adverse Childhood Experiences Study

Overall Effects on Children

Treatment Approaches

NASW Standards for Social Work Practice with Service Members, Veterans, & Their Families

Free online course: The National Child Traumatic Stress Network: Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (TF-CBT)

Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT) Fact Sheet for Clinicians

Free online course: Cognitive Processing Therapy

Trauma-Informed Care (TIC)

U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs: PTSD: National Center for PTSD

Other Helpful Resources

‘Why Is Dad So Mad?’ Veteran writes book to explain his PTSD to his daughter.  Also available at www.amazon.com

Military Times: Rand: Civilian mental health providers don’t ‘get’ the military

The Impact of Deployment on U.S. Military Families

Understanding the Impact of Deployment on Children and Families

Using Trauma-Informed Care with Veterans – Dr. Patrick Welch

Use Veteran recovery stories to build connections

Photo Credits

Welcome Home Jack- Our Hero

Hands behind his back

Soldier with flag

Man with a drink





Got Barriers? Improving Access to Mental Health Care for Children & Adolescents

23 01 2015

Guest author:

Melanie Washington, LMSW, MPH, PhD candidate

  Child concerns on a corkboard

If it were not for social work interventions I had as a child, my life trajectory may have been completely different.  I am eternally grateful for those individuals who, with moderate intervention, helped to shape the individual that I am today and be a part of what facilitated the passion that I have for mental health care for children and adolescents.  With my life experiences, both personally and professionally, I fervently believe that every child deserves the opportunity to have mental health treatment, therefore it is my hope through my future work we will be able to figure out solutions to help increase access to mental health care for all children.

I had my first interaction with a social worker in second grade.  I was fortunate to have parents who recognized the struggle that I was having and were unconcerned about the stigma of seeking mental health treatment.  In general, I was an irritable, angry, and strong willed child, with a low sense of self-worth (it wasn’t until I was an adult that I was diagnosed with depression and learned that this is often how depression presents in young children).  However, at school, I was shy and quiet, allowing myself to be walked on by my peers and then I would come home and take it out on my family, verbally and physically.  It was through family and individual work that I was able to start making improvements and gaining more confidence in myself.

Then in sixth grade, I became well acquainted with the school social worker who assisted me in dealing with tremendous challenges and stress at home (although this time I was not the cause of it).  Her assistance and support shaped not only my personal trajectory, but also my career.

After obtaining my bachelors in social work, I worked as an intake coordinator in an outpatient mental health clinic for children and adolescents; I saw the heartache and immense challenges caregiver’s face in attempting to access treatment for their children.  Therefore, I made the decision to go back to school to become a researcher to find solutions to this issue.  I have also begun working on an exciting new grant funding a white paper exploring the issues of access to child and adolescent mental health care in Western New York.

Why is this issue important?

  • Children globally (1 out of 4) have at least one diagnosable mental health disorder.
  • There are not enough child mental health providers to meet the current needs within the population.
  • The World Health Organization has estimated a 50% increase in childhood mental health needs by 2020.

Closed Road with signs

Potential (and too often) Real Barriers:

  • Financial barriers:
    • Insurance coverage- plan may not include mental health services, minimal number of visits allowed, therapists may not be “in network”, may have high deductible plan
    • No insurance
    • Co-pays and families without money to pay the co-pay
    • Sliding fee scales- if they are offered, still may not be low enough for families to afford the payment
  • Geographic barriers: There may not be any clinics in the communities in which individuals live. If a child is below the age of 5, the family may have to travel further distances to find a therapist willing to see children under this age
  • Transportation barriers: Does the family own a car? Can they afford gas? If not, do they have access to Medicaid funded transportation or have money to take the bus? Is your clinic on a bus line? How many bus transfers would might families have to take to get to the office? Is there enough time for the family to take the bus to the appointment after they get out of work? Is the family ashamed or embarrassed to tell you that they don’t have the adequate transportation to access services?
  • Organizational barriers:
    • Hours of operation: Do the clinic hours of operation provide enough flexibility for days, evenings and weekend appointments or does the schedule of therapy create a barrier to access?
    • Does the clinic engage in practices of double booking that can cause people to wait past their appointment time when both appointments show up as scheduled and someone has to wait? These delays may not be tolerable for the children and adolescent or their family due to behavioral and schedule needs (such as the last bus leaves before their appointment ends).
    • Is there enough diversity in the sex and race/ethnicity of therapists so that families have a choice of someone they feel comfortable with?
    • Are there therapists who have appropriate specializations to work with diverse clientele in a clinic as well as evidence-based treatment skills to provide effective treatment?
    • Is the organization trauma-informed and trauma-sensitive so that people seen feel safe and welcome, and are not re-traumatized through service provision?
  • Availability of services:
    • Is a family able to easily obtain an appointment when they first call? If not, what does the process entail for a family to get one? How long do they have to wait for the first appointment? How are they treated by the person who handles the initial contact with the agency? Does the family feel cared for, engaged and that their social or cultural differences will be recognized and understood?
    • If an appointment is given, is it within a reasonable period of time?
    • Are there therapists available to take on new clients?
    • Are there delays or interruption in service being provided- for example if an agency has a high turnover rate, how long to families have to wait to see a new therapist when their current one leaves, and what impact might that disruption in services have on the child?
  • Lack of awareness and willingness to access care:
    • Caregivers may not recognize the signs that a child or adolescent needs mental health treatment. Or they feel there is a stigma related to this. How to we help educate them?
    • Caregiver may be unsure about how to access care, who to ask, and how to navigate the mental health system. Their primary physician also may not be knowledgeable about how to assist them. How do we help them find access to care?
    • Fear: Caregivers may be fearful that if their child does need mental health care that they will be blamed for their child’s behavior or that their child will be taken away from them. Social workers are often equated with Child Protection Services and the myth that CPS only takes away children from families. How do we educate families that therapists can help?

  Kids enjoying family timeThere are many barriers faced by families as they attempt to obtain mental health services for their children.  Yet I passionately believe we also have also have the ability to create some solutions for children and adolescents, their families, mental health care organizations, and the research and policy community.

Possible Solutions for Families:

  • Take action! If you are concerned about your child, talk to their primary care doctor or school social workers.
  • Keep a positive attitude: Help is available and the sooner mental health issues receive effective interventions, the healthier the outcome will be for the child and family.
  • Don’t worry: Getting mental health help for your child does not mean you are a bad parent!
  • Communicate (there is a questions at the end of this post to ask of different providers) with your child’s providers and advocate for them if you do not like the way services are provided. (There is a link at the end of this post on the family resource page with 25 ways to advocate for your child.)

 Possible Solutions for Organizations:

  • Improve engagement and retention of clients by following Trauma-informed Care (TIC) principles and educate all staff at the clinic, from the receptionist to the director on TIC. (Refer to the resource section at the end of this post.)
  • Review and adjust, if needed, clinic hours of operation to ensure they meet the needs of family schedules.
  • Attempt to hire a diverse group of individuals and provide training in cultural competency.
  • Advance the education of your workforce to enhance their skills in treatment provision including evidence-based treatments
  • Include access to services in agency strategic planning.
  • Review and adjust, if needed, your intake process. For example: is there a way to streamline it and make it more family friendly, decrease the waiting times for services, etc.?
  • Review and adjust, if needed, scheduling so that clinicians can see their clients at the time that their appointments are scheduled.
  • Pursue grants or a charitable fund to assist families who are unable to cover the cost of services, bus passes to get to the clinic, and other needs that create barriers to access.
  • Consider, if possible, performing home or school visits for families who have transportation issues.

Possible Large System Solutions:

  • Enhanced integration of physical and mental healthcare
    • Mental health screenings in pediatric clinics, starting from birth
    • Having mental health professionals on staff so that a child or adolescent screens positive they are able to see someone immediately, in addition to providing regular treatment
  • Enhanced integration of mental health clinics into schools or increase of therapists within schools who are able to provide regular psychotherapy, as opposed to crisis management
  • Evaluate tele-mental health: To assist with families to who have transportation issues or may not have easy geographic access to a mental health clinic. Yes, billable regulations need to be investigated and policy advocacy may be part of this with funding bodies.

 Resources:

New York Child and Adolescent Psychiatry for Primary Care

25 ways to advocate for your child

Questions for caregivers to ask providers

SAMHSA’s Concept of Trauma and Guidance for a Trauma-Informed Approach

US Dept. of Health & Human Services. Access to Adolescent Health. Access to Mental Health Care

American Psychological Association. Strengthening the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Workforce

American Psychological Association. Increasing Access and Coordination of Quality Mental Health Services for Children and Adolescents

Photo Credits

Closed Road with Signs

Child Concerns on a Cork Board

Piggy Ride Time, Kids Enjoying





Improving the System for Our Loved Ones: A Mother’s View of Addiction and Services

16 07 2014

Depressed teen free Morgue file

Guest author: name withheld for confidentiality

The day before Christmas, I received a phone call from my oldest son asking me to pick him up on a downtown corner in a risky neighborhood. He gets in the car wearing sunglasses even though the day is dark and cloudy.  My inner alarm sounds and my heart starts to tear… he is high again.  Back home I watch him slowly begin to detox. How many times does this need to happen?  My rule is that he can stay at home as long as he is willing to get help. Of course he agrees as he has nowhere to go. We plan to go to a local hospital inpatient unit but you have to be in a certain physical state to get admitted, and this depends on who is doing the intake and bed availability. Sometimes he can be admitted, sometimes not- yet he is the same person each time, out of control and in need of addiction treatment. We have to wait until Christmas morning to go there.  Not exactly my plan for a family Christmas but I am prepared to do whatever it takes to save his life. 

We arrive at the inpatient unit only to have him turned away. They say he is not sick enough. Really? He is an out of control addict using heroin, asking for help and I am terrified he will die. So now what?  He can’t come back home and refuses to go to a different hospital inpatient unit to see if he can be admitted there. So he decides to stay with a ‘friend’ as he cannot stay with me if he is not in treatment- it is too risky for my family because of past incidents. I drop him off, not knowing what he will do next and the heartache I feel is overwhelming.  What kind of mother turns her son out Christmas day? I feel like I am living in a perpetual grief state as I wait for the worst to happen.  Will this be the last time I see him?

It wasn’t always like this. His childhood was blessed- large and loving family, many friends, fun activities, and strong church involvement.  He graduated near the top of his high school class and attended a private university. But drugs don’t care if you have a college degree.

 Drug use. addictionImage courtesy of Victor Habbick-FreeDigitalPhotos.net ID-10073274I was told people can have the potential to be an addict long before they touch a drug.  This is true of my son.  He is very creative with an eccentric personality that is so fun yet always intensely, sometimes obsessively, focused on the current interest. When he latched onto a new interest that was not so healthy, the consequences became deadly.  After having suffered several major psychological traumas in his late teens, his addictive personality took over to stop his thoughts and feelings.  First it was alcohol, then marijuana, then pain killers finally escalating to heroin. The lies, the deceptions, the thefts from family and friends could no longer be ignored but I was determined not to lose my child. The service system is far from perfect and whether or not your child is receptive to help makes a difference.

older woman head in hands free morgue fileI have had people telling me to cut him off, let him hit rock bottom, and move on in with my life. And a few who said never give up on your child. How can I move on in my life when my son is a big part of it and needs help?  I also walked a fine line trying to avoid being the enabler. I struggled with every decision and often doubted if my choices were right.  Rock bottom can mean death. Will this push him to suicide or will he survive the next overdose? Will he start cutting his arms again? I have cried my eyes out over this, made myself physically and emotionally sick with worry and stress, mourned his death over and over, and planned his funeral.

Twice he was kicked out of inpatient residential programs for not following the rules leaving him with no place to go. How did that help him? He also quit seeing several outpatient therapists because he was smart enough to recognize their insufficient skills or they lacked the rapport needed to keep him in treatment. I have had him arrested, requested a three-day hold in psychiatric unit, cut him off financially, visited him in jail, begged for the best treatment placements through the drug court, taken him to therapy, attended NA meetings with him- often to no avail. I watched him make gains in his recovery only to relapse and have to start over. I remember when I first admitted to friends that he was an addict, I was told that expect him to relapse.  I was stunned by this statement- not my kid, he can do this. I was so wrong as the addiction was more powerful than my amazing, talented son.

 If I could offer any advice to families walking in my path and the service system, it would be:

 

  • For families, please persevere.  Ask many questions, seek help, get therapy, cry if you need to, get mad, and be prepared to fight the battle of your life. Give them hope when they are unable to do it for themselves.
  • Always believe in the person battling an addiction and never give up on them. Be compassionate and persistent even in the face of lies and relapses.
  • The addiction service system needs to find improved ways to meet the needs of people who are up sick and desperate for treatment.
  • Please stop turning them away from treatment saying they don’t meet criteria, or there is no room and giving them no place to go when they are sick and desperate.  
  • Find better places for residential treatment homes so they are not close to ‘crack’ houses that create great temptation.
  • When they keep their cell phones in residential treatment their dealers are still calling them- another temptation that could be avoided.
  • When they are in drug court, break the rules for participation and get throw out of treatment,  why are they immediately discharged from treatment on their own  and not turned immediately back over the custody of the courts?  They do eventually get re-arrested but the time in between can be deadly.  This is a big gap in the program that needs to be fixed.
  • Trauma and addiction go together as I saw this with my son. Psychological trauma is often part of why the person is addicted and both parts of who they are need to be treated as the drugs never go away as long as the emotional pain is still there. So intertwined, yet many of the counselors I interacted with did not have the skills or knowledge to provide effective treatment. I am told this is called a dual-disorder. Agencies need to support staff in gaining advanced treatment skills.
  • Remember that the family is suffering, too. My son’s addiction traumatized all of us. Family members need support. Whether you are a friend, family member or service provider, please understand and empathize with the feelings of shame, sadness, anger, guilt, embarrassment and helplessness we feel. The effect of addiction is devastating and the impact on families and friends is horrific, widespread and so long lasting as trust is often irreparably broken.

Epilogue: As of this moment, my son is in recovery and making progress with the support of a very skilled trauma and addiction therapist. I hope and pray each day that healing and recovery continue. Yet part of me still is still scared, still holding my breath each time the phone rings…

Resources:

New York State Combat Heroin & Prescription Drug Abuse http://combatheroin.ny.gov/

National Institute on Drug Abuse www.drugabuse.gov

Narcotics Anonymous www.na.org

Alcoholics Anonymous www.aa.org

Nar-Anon Family Groups www.nar-anon.org

National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence www.ncadd.org

SAMHSA evidence-based treatments for addiction http://www.nrepp.samhsa.gov/SearchResultsNew.aspx?s=b&q=addiction

SAMHSA Co-Occurring Disorders http://media.samhsa.gov/co-occurring/

National Center on Trauma and Trauma-Informed Care http://beta.samhsa.gov/nctic/trauma-interventions

Photo credits:

Woman and teen photos from www.morguefile.com

Drug photo credit- Drug and addiction use courtesy of Victor Habbick at www.freedigitalphotos.net








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