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A family affair: Orlando VA planning expansion of mental health program
Orlando Sentinel - 11/11/2022
Mental health issues can feel isolating, and veterans aren’t immune to the stigma that comes with discussing them.
“Military folks have a lot of pride. So they don’t like seeking assistance,” said Norris Henderson, the Mission United manager of the nonprofit Heart of Florida United Way in Orlando. “But if they get the assistance that they’re seeking, you know, it may be able to save that job or save the family from breaking up.”
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, nearly 1 in 4 active duty members show signs of a mental health condition. One of the largest studies of mental health in the U.S. Military found the rate of major depression in soldiers was five times higher than in civilians, and the rate of PTSD was nearly 15 times higher.
A new program encourages veterans not to face these issues alone.
In the next few months, the Orlando Veteran Affairs Healthcare System will launch a specialty team of marriage and family therapists to help loved ones resolve conflicts and improve social skills, said Kara Boyer, deputy associate chief of staff for mental health.
Dubbed Family Integrative Recovery and Systems Therapy, the program could include anything from resolving communication issues to anger management, said Boyer. It isn’t limited to couples or family members.
“Engaging family and social supports of all kinds is going to be critical to helping our patients — civilians and veterans alike,” she said. “The more we can involve them, the better.”
Marriage and family therapy is a form of psychotherapy that focuses on understanding a patient’s symptoms within the context of their relationships and helping through specific, evidence-based techniques.
“l am a spouse of a combat vet myself, and I think it’s really important that we’re involved in the care and that, you know, the veteran feels that they can come to us as well and talk about how their healthcare is going,” she said.
Nearly all mental illnesses impact and are impacted by personal relationships. A growing number of studies suggest that patients are more likely to improve from and stick with therapy if family members are involved, particularly patients with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Despite this, family-inclusive visits are still rare across the Veterans Health Administration: a 2022 study of veterans with high rates of PTSD found less than 1% of their mental health appointments included family.
This program will make it easier for families to get involved in treatment by making family and marriage therapy services available beyond the VA’s mental health department. Areas including primary care, women’s health and the VA’s caregiver support program will offer the option, Boyer said.
The system is also engaging families more in its suicide prevention program, which monitors and provides outreach to veterans at risk, Boyer said.
In 2020, there were 6,146 veteran suicide deaths, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
“A lot of our civilian counterparts, they don’t know that they can call 911. They don’t know they can call 988 and get help for people that are in crisis,” Boyer said. “We want to make sure that they know what those options are, so that they’re not just going, ‘I don’t know what to do. I can’t do anything.’”
In addition to the VA and local nonprofits such as Heart of Florida United Way, Florida’s network of mental health providers is here to help.
“Florida’s Managing Entities fully support both our active military and our veterans. This Veterans Day, we not only salute them but also want veterans to know that help is available for any mental health concerns they may have,” said Natalie K. Kelly, CEO of the Florida Association of Managing Entities, in a news release.
CCatherman@orlandosentinel.com; @CECatherman Twitter
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