By Rev. Alejandro De Jesus
Unforgiveness. Guilt. Betrayal. Anger. Depression. Fear. Worry. Loss of appetite. Sleeplessness. Numbness. Hopelessness.
Military deployment and combat inflict visible injuries as well as unseen wounds on anyone coming home from the battlefield. While some adjust well to civilian life, many encounter serious mental health problems. In fact, one of five US veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars experience mild to major depression.
When veterans were already coping with depression, alcohol and substance use, or unemployment, the lockdown at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic also forced them to face isolation, limitations, and anxiety. It could only spell disaster.
The US Census Bureau noted that rates of depression and anxiety increased sharply during the pandemic, compared with the same period the previous year. The VA immediately put forth programs to maintain services to veterans while at the same time making their workplaces safe.
Even before the pandemic, the VA provided numerous services in various mental health specialty clinics, nursing homes, residential facilities and medical centers. It treats veterans for anxiety, bipolar disorder, depression, PTSD, schizophrenia, substance use, suicide prevention, tobacco cessation, military sexual trauma and effects of traumatic brain injury.
Beyond that, however, the VA strives for a “coordinated care for the whole person, not just for the person’s mental illness.” This includes assistance for work and compensation, as well as extending help to spouses and family members. Such a well-coordinated program of care comes under the supervision of an interdisciplinary team called the Patient Aligned Care Teams. These teams are composed of medical doctors, psychiatrists, social workers, psychologists, chaplains, nurses and other support staff. This team approach proved invaluable during the pandemic, as VA staffers worked to build resilience in their patients.
Resilience describes the ability to adjust to life’s misfortunes and setbacks, whether minor or very major indeed. The VA’s 250 medical centers and hundreds of community-based outpatient clinics and treatment centers throughout the nation employ mental health clinicians and support personnel to strengthen veterans in their journey.
Among the more noteworthy programs is Moving Forward, which helps veterans with challenges on managing stress, balancing school and family, relationships, coping with significant physical injuries, financial difficulties and adjustment issues. Activities can be performed through interactive media.
As an online educational program, Moving Forward basically uses problem-solving skills to better manage stumbling blocks and identify goals and obstacles towards an action plan. The program was very professionally done and garnered half a dozen national awards, both for content and for the modalities it uses to achieve its goals.
The program has also undergone significant improvements since its inception in 2013. Just before the pandemic hit, the Moving Forward mobile app became available for smartphones, making the stress-management and problem-solving tools even more convenient. As 2020 wore on, the easy-to-access worksheets and games made the program an instant hit among those bored by the lockdowns.
Fortunately, with the extensive and effective use of telehealth therapy, the limitations imposed by the pandemic were mostly overcome. Veterans expressed gratitude and satisfaction for these programs. A mental telehealth patient noted how “lucky” she was to have the chance to do her therapy with convenience and effectiveness. Another was awed at being able to remotely confer with his psychiatrist in another VA center. Still another marveled at how he could connect virtually with the numerous mental health and medical providers he was consulting, each with the specialty on his specific problems. He ended by saying, “It was THE best thing I did while I was pursuing my health.”
Alejandro De Jesus, PhD, BCC, is certified in the NACC, NCVACC, and NAVAC and has specialty certification in hospice and palliative care and in mental health.