Supporting Veterans’ Mental Health in AmeriCorps
Today’s guest post for World Mental Health Day comes from Taylor Brooks, a two-term AmeriCorps alum working in the field of mental health. She is currently a Ph.D. candidate in counseling psychology who studies the intersection of mental illness and substance use. She is an advocate of social justice in the field of mental health by increasing the availability of services to traditionally underserved communities.
My grandfather was too young to fight in World War II, but two of his older brothers did serve. As I was growing up, I saw how my grandfather idolized his older brothers. He told stories of their bravery, of the honors they received. One was killed in action in Europe. The other served in the Pacific and survived the war.
As I got older I started to hear more about the realities of war and how it impacted my family. My grandfather told of how the brother who survived the war did not return intact. He was never able to fully readjust to civilian life and used alcohol in an attempt to drown the memories. He wound up dying as a result of his alcohol use many years before I was born.
I could never understand how my uncle was allowed to drink away the years that should have spent joyfully reunited with family, and why there was nobody there to help him to cope with the horror of war and the difficulty of coming home. This is why I was so honored to be able to serve the Department of Veterans Affairs during my AmeriCorps term of service. I am currently studying to become a psychologist, and I recently finished a year of providing mental health therapy and assessment services to veterans.
I specialize in the treatment of co-occurring mental health and substance use disorders. This gave me the opportunity to see first-hand the type of problems my uncle likely faced, and to help other veterans from following this same trajectory. I met people who have gone for decades without addressing the events that transpired during their service. Using drugs and alcohol is much easier than exposing and cleaning out those old wounds, but it keeps us from healing and moving forward. My job was to create a safe place for people to try out a new way of living.
Experiencing strong emotions is difficult for us all, but when those emotions are so powerfully negative and combined with a military culture that promotes the idea that emotions mean weakness, this prospect can be terrifying and shameful. It makes complete sense that anyone would prefer the emotional numbness of substance use. Veterans using substances do not need lectures or shaming, they need support and a safe place to take these risks. If I was able to provide that to even one person then my year was well-spent.
I am pleased to see that we as a society have made a commitment to proving these services to our military veterans. We have learned a great many lessons from the horrible mistakes we have made during previous conflicts. I worked with men who served in Vietnam and who were receiving therapy for the first time in 2012.
It is my hope that in another thirty years the men and women currently serving our country are not beginning to address these concerns for the first time, but have been supported from day one.