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





Trauma-Informed Medical Care? Not at my doctor’s office…

11 08 2013

meat words image courtesy of Victor Habbick at freedigitalphotos.net ZOMBIE MISTID-10076674

Yep, this topic is one of my passions: trauma-informed medical care, trauma-informed systems of medical-care, and the problem of its frequent absence in health-care settings. I have met some wonderful, compassionate medical professionals. Yet I routinely encounter those whose attitude and behavior causes patient anxiety, emotional distress, fear, and is sometimes psychologically retraumatizing. Even though patient contact may be limited to only a few minutes, it is still possible to create trauma-informed experiences that benefit the patient.

Here are some examples of what is not  trauma-informed medical care:

  • An RN case manager calls my husband after he is home from the hospital after a severe heart attack. Three times during the conversation she asks him why he had to go to the emergency room. Each time he replied that he was afraid he was going to die. (And the paramedics took him to the hospital.)  We filed a complaint and received prompt follow-up from the insurance company…but what happened in the medical provider’s system and in the nurse’s life and training  that caused such an insensitive encounter to occur?
  • At each of my frequent primary care visits, I am asked to fill out a long list of questions detailing all of my health problems. Anytime I have to discuss my medical history, I get very upset and my blood pressure rises significantly. I just prefer not to think about it, to focus on the progress, and not on the long list of medical diagnoses. Even though I explained that this process was upsetting to me, staff insisted I must comply as it was (the dreaded) policy. So I completed the awful form at home, scanned it into my computer so that each visit I just print it out, add the date and any new issue that requires attention and this does not upset me anymore. On one visit the nursing assistant who had been told before I did not want to use these forms, took me into the treatment room and then tossed a pile of these forms onto the chair where I was going to sit. She informed me that the copy I was bringing in did not have the doctor’s section on the back and I needed to use their double sided form. Big sigh…I tried not to sound belligerent as I said that my forms are scanned and printed- perhaps staff could just staple or tape their form onto the back of mine?  I handed the forms back to her and sat down. No response from her, but she never tried that again!
  • I had a recent appointment at a specialist’s office where I had been seen before but had to switch to a different doctor in the practice as mine left. The nurse said nothing but  “hello, have a seat”- no eye contact during the entire time. She then proceeded to rapidly ask me a long list of standard medical status questions. She displayed no compassion or concern for the fact that I stated my symptoms had worsened significantly in the last three months. I felt like a faceless piece of meat or at best, a shirt in a garment factory being checked by Inspector 32. This is not about the ten minutes it took to go through the medical questions that were important for the doctor to know. It is about how it was done and that it was not trauma-informed/trauma-sensitive as I was very anxious about the worsening symptoms, the impact on my quality of life, and what the future held for me.

Some people have developed Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) from serious health issues, near death experiences and many trauma survivors in the healthcare system frequently have additional medical, behavioral health or mental health needs. How can the healthcare system address the needs of people who have had traumatic experiences that are impacting their physical health as well as their emotional health? To start, every healthcare professional should make themselves familiar with the landmark Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study of 17,000 individuals that demonstrated the strong correlation between childhood trauma/abuse and adult health problems. Watch the fourteen-minute summary video of the ACE study.

So what is Trauma-Informed Care (TIC)?

Trauma-Informed Care involves a focus on “What happened to you?” instead of “What’s wrong with you?”  While the healthcare profession typically focuses on individual diagnoses, symptoms, and treatments, I see the bigger issue as what is happening to people with medical issues, how it affects their ability to function and how it affects their quality of life. I frequently bring up the issue of quality of life with my physicians. I have never heard a medical professional talk about quality of life without me first raising the issue and bringing this perspective into the diagnosis and treatment process. TIC also encompasses the policies, services, and practices for both patients and staff. It minimizes the chance of individuals being re-traumatized by healthcare services.

The Fallot (2006) five guiding principles of Trauma-Informed Care  apply to patients and the entire organization including the employees. I elaborated on the definitions to enhance their applicability to medical settings.

1. Safety- ensure the physical and emotional safety of patients and employees. Shift to a whole person focus of “what happened to you?” instead of “what is wrong with you?” Make the physical environment welcoming, comforting, clean and safe. Value the patient’s experiences and perspectives so they feel safe. Ask them  “how are you managing to cope with these symptoms/disability/pain?” Or perhaps “how is this affecting your work and home life?”

2. Trustworthiness- provide clear and sufficiently detailed information about what patients and employees can expect and need to know; maintain appropriate professional boundaries. Return calls and requests for information consistently and in a timely manner.

3. Choice- prioritize patient and employee experiences of choice and control. Give patients options including evidence-based options so that they can make an informed decision; respond respectfully to their questions as they clarify needed information to make an informed decision. Tell them why you recommend a particular treatment, listen to their questions, and let them make an informed choice.

4. Collaboration- maximize collaboration and the sharing of power with patients and employees; it is the patient’s body so the final decision is theirs; work together with them in partnership; remember that other medical providers may be involved and multiple differences of opinions often occur that the patient must process; the provider seeks collaboration with involved other providers. Create a treatment plan together with the patient, follow it, and update it as desired by the patient through collaborative discussion. Listen to office and support staff ideas and concerns as they often have great suggestions to improve the practice and service for the patient.

5. Empowerment- recognize patient and employee strengths and skills; acknowledge patient experiences and their inner wisdom regarding their health and employee ideas regarding service provision. Patients are empowered when they are given enough information to make informed decisions. Allowing the patient to be in the “driver’s seat” may feel uncomfortable to some, but it can be very empowering to many patients.

 

Is TIC different from good customer service? Yes,  they are different although they have many similar components. A medical setting that has great customer/patient service is more likely to be trauma-informed for staff and patients, and less likely to trigger or re-traumatize a patient. However, TIC includes much more than just good customer service. In addition, there is the larger policy issue of identifying those children, youth, and adults who are trauma survivors when they enter the healthcare so that their needs can be effectively addressed with appropriate referrals and coordination of services.

So what kinds of things can make a medical or other healthcare setting trauma-informed? (Various resources are listed at the end of the blog.)

  1. Train all staff on the basics of psychological trauma and Trauma-Informed Care as well as the relationship between trauma and addiction, and the impact of childhood trauma on adult illness, disability, and death. This is a brochure on Medical Traumatic Stress: What Health Care Providers Need To Know related to pediatric illness, injury and traumatic stress from the National Child Traumatic Stress Network I was not able to find anything similar for adult trauma-informed medical care.
  2. Examine the environment, processes, forms, policies, etc. that staff and patients are exposed to and obtain input from patients through a focus group or other means to make progress toward changes to make services more trauma-informed.
  3. Ensure that any assessment tools are used as required by medical guidelines for assessing needs of trauma survivors. Have referral information readily available.
  4. Advocate as healthcare providers and patients for coordination in healthcare systems, collaboration with behavioral health and mental health providers,
  5. Practice good customer service and implement the five principles of Trauma-Informed Care.

This topic could fill a whole book, but I hope I have offered enough to give you a good start! Check out some of the resources below.

Author: Lesa Fichte, LMSW, Director of Continuing Education

Resources

Center for Pediatric Traumatic Stress, The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia http://www.chop.edu/professionals/pediatric-traumatic-stress/about-pediatric-traumatic-stress/trauma-informed-care-for-healthcare-providers.html

SAMHSA National Center on Trauma-Informed Care http://www.samhsa.gov/nctic/

Brochure on Medical Traumatic Stress: What Health Care Providers Need To Know related to pediatric illness, injury and traumatic stress from the National Child Traumatic Stress Network http://www.chop.edu/export/download/pdfs/articles/traumatic-stress-pdf-cpts-mtsbrochure.pdf

Medical Trauma from the National Child Traumatic Stress Network http://www.nctsn.org/trauma-types/medical-trauma

The Adverse Childhood Experiences Study http://acestudy.org/ and http://www.cdc.gov/ace/index.htm

Relationship of Childhood Abuse and Household Dysfunction to Many of the Leading Causes of Death in Adults: The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study http://www.ajpm-online.net/article/PIIS0749379798000178/abstract

Using Trauma Theory to Design Service Systems: New Directions for Mental Health Services,  Maxine Harris and Roger D. Fallot (2001) http://www.amazon.com/Trauma-Theory-Design-Service-Systems/dp/078791438X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1376250212&sr=8-1&keywords=harris+and+fallot

Trauma-Informed Services: A Self-Assessment and Planning Protocol, Community Connections: Roger D. Fallot, Ph.D. and Maxine Harris, Ph.D. (March, 2006) http://smchealth.org/sites/default/files/docs/tisapprotocol.pdf

International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies http://www.istss.org/Home.htm

Traumatic Stress: An Overview, American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress http://www.aaets.org/arts/art1.htm

Article: Some Medical Trauma Might Induce Later PTSD http://www.goodtherapy.org/blog/some-medical-trauma-might-induce-later-ptsd-0716132

How to Provide Good Customer Service in a Health Care Setting http://www.ehow.com/how_7372599_provide-service-health-care-setting.html

Customer Service in Health Care Optimizing Your Patient’s Experience by Karen A. Meek http://pacificmedicalcenters.org/images/uploads/KCMS_Customer_Service_in_Healthcare.pdf

University at Buffalo School of Social Work Institute on Trauma and Trauma-Informed Care http://www.socialwork.buffalo.edu/ittic/

Trauma-Informed Care Information & Resources, University at Buffalo School of Social Work http://www.socialwork.buffalo.edu/facstaff/tic_resources.asp

Video from the Cleveland Clinic on ‘Empathy: The Human Connection to Patient Care’. Provides great perspective on remembering that you don’t know what a person is experiencing or feeling inside; we all have struggles. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cDDWvj_q-o8&feature=share

University at Buffalo School of Social Work Trauma-Informed and Human Rights MSW Curriculum http://www.socialwork.buffalo.edu/about/tihr.asp

Trauma-Informed Certificate Programs and workshops from the University at Buffalo School of Social Work Office of Continuing Education http://www.socialwork.buffalo.edu/conted/trauma.asp

Photo credit: image courtesy of Victor Habbick at www.freedigitalphotos.net








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