Within the Making Connections for Mental Health and Wellbeing Among Men and Boys initiative community of practice, Veteran’s Day is an opportunity to honor veterans and their families and create a space for veterans to connect with and support each other.
“Social isolation is a challenge for many veterans and can contribute to feelings of despair, so creating opportunities for social connection is an important part of our programs,” said Justine Ginsburg, community health coordinator for the Farmington Valley Health District and the director of Resilience Grows Here (RGH).
RGH is one of the three Making Connections sites that works with veterans and military service members. The initiative, which is funded by the Movember Foundation and coordinated by Prevention Institute, is a network of 14 communities across the US that pursue innovative, community-based, prevention-oriented strategies to support mental wellbeing among men and boys.
Resilience Grows Here
Resilience Grows Here (RGH) is a veteran-focused mental health initiative of the Farmington Valley Health District. The program engages veterans, their families, and members of the broader community in efforts to prevent suicide among veterans, who are nearly twice as likely as nonveterans to take their own lives. One of the communities served by RGH is East Granby, which is home to some 500 veterans and host to a monthly gathering of 1,900 members of the 103rd Airlift Wing of the Connecticut National Guard.
RGH aims to prevent suicide by reducing veterans’ isolation, destigmatizing mental illness, building resilience in boys and men, and creating safe spaces for veterans to connect with each other. It offers a variety of programs for veterans and their families, including a peer-to-peer mentoring program, suicide prevention training, and community events that provide a safe space where veterans and their family members can engage with each other and their community. Anzac, the program’s post-traumatic stress disorder therapy dog, participates in RGH public events and is available to social workers, psychologists, and clergy members at the local military base.
“RGH is beginning to change the culture of the 103rd Airlift Wing, where asking for help or raising your hand and saying, ‘I’m not ok’ was previously the norm in the military—and still is—but RGH is changing the conversation,” said Jason McQueeney, an Air Guard Reserve member with the 103rd Civil Engineer Squadron.
Kankakee Community College Veteran Resource Center
According to the latest data from the Veterans Administration, the US loses 22 veterans a day to suicide. One of the challenges veterans face is adjusting from military life to civilian life, and this challenge is especially pressing for veterans who go back to school. They find that what was a strength in the military can be a challenge at home, and many feel out of place or disconnected from other students.
“When you get back, it’s such a shock to the system. I couldn’t deal with a lot of my issues. … It’s hard to adjust,” said Robert Perez, a US army veteran and Kankakee Community College student.
In response to this reality, student veterans at Kankakee Community College in Illinois developed a veterans’ resource center on campus. The resource center provides veterans with the opportunity to connect with other student veterans, which helps them to feel less isolated and provides them with a sense of community. It also addresses a difficulty student veterans face because they’ve been trained to be hyper-vigilant, which means that the sounds of campus life can be stressful and distracting. The veterans’ resource center is a place where the students can let down their guard and feel safe enough to focus on their studies.
The resource center also serves as an operations center, where student veterans can plan events and activities, which helps give them a sense of purpose—another important element of military life this isn’t always present back at home. One of their projects is called Photo Voice, which allows the students to use photography as a way to express their feelings and opinions and open up conversations about sensitive topics they don’t normally discuss. The students did the project as a group as a way to build camraderie and mutual support. “What is really powerful about photo voice is that it allows people to talk about things in a way that is less threatning,” said Cari Stevenson, a professor of psychology at Kankakee Community College who works with the veterans’ resource center.
“Unfortunately veteran suicide is an alarming problem,” Stevenson said. “One of the more recent statistics is that we lose about 22 veterans every day. We’re losing veterans when they come home. So that’s not a military problem; that’s a community problem. And that’s not something that’s going to change overnight; that’s going to take concerted effort on all of our parts.”
VetSET Nebraska works through local health departments across rural Nebraska to ensure that veterans have the support and resources they need to successfully reintegrate and thrive in their families and communities. Because Nebraska is a rural state where organizations that support and provide care to veterans can be located very far away from veterans’ communities, VetSET takes the approach that the entire community needs to be prepared to recognize veterans’ unique needs and respond to them in a way that’s sensitive to their culture. This couldn’t be more important than in the case of recognizing veterans who are at risk of suicide.
To prepare the entire community to be able to support veterans’ health and wellbeing, the Nebraska Association of Local Health Directors (NALHD) created VetSET. Through the program, they train and support organizations and agencies that interact with veterans and their families but may not have an expertise in veterans’ issues or military culture. They work with social services organizations, faith-based organizations, educational institutions, health clinics, government agencies, law enforcement, and employers, among others. The training for these organizations includes not only explaining veterans’ challenges, which can cause them to feel isolated or unprepared for civilian life, but also highlighting their strengths. These include strategic thinking abilities, teamwork, leadership skills, a can-do attitude, and more.
VetSET’s work isn’t limited to veterans and military service members—it extends to their spouses, children, and other family members. These are the people who are most likely to notice and respond to problems as they arise and often need a support system of their own.
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