Veterans Find Help and Hope Through Supportive Services
For Andy*, a New York combat veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, chronic back pain was becoming so severe that he was frequently calling out sick from his job. Depression also was compounding his problems, causing him to withdraw from friends and family and lose motivation in his work. After seeking help from a program that connects veterans to a variety of supports and services, Andy was able to take the first steps in reclaiming his life.
Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America’s (IAVA) Rapid Response Referral Program (RRRP) provides free individualized case management support and referral services to veterans and their families in need of help, from dealing with depression and stress to getting connected to health care, mental health, legal, housing, and employment services. Initially serving veterans in New York City, RRRP expanded its services across New York State with NYSHealth support in 2013.
Andy was open to getting help for his physical problems, but he was reluctant to seek help for his mental health issues; he had tried counseling in the past and had not found it effective. With encouragement from an IAVA case manager, Andy agreed to pursue weekly physical treatments for his back; soon afterwards, his back pain improved. Andy’s IAVA case manager also connected him to a nonprofit that provides free services for combat veterans, including group counseling related to combat trauma. After being introduced to several other veterans who were participating in the counseling, Andy decided to attend the group. He later told his IAVA case manager that, for the first time since he had been home from deployment, he felt able to begin addressing his trauma and depression.
Veterans and family members seeking support can contact the RRRP by sending an e-mail, calling its toll-free phone number, or filling out an online inquiry firm. IAVA staff members follow up within one business day—sooner if it’s an emergency situation—to conduct an initial assessment of the problem (e.g., eviction proceedings, mental health issues, employment and education questions). Based on the intake assessment, the veteran then is assigned a case manager who works with the veteran or family member one-on-one for however long it takes to resolve the issue.
The case manager draws upon RRRP’s existing database of resources and services or researches new ones to link the veteran to the best sources of help, whether through the VA system or through community- or social service-based organizations. “We help them navigate a very complex system—one that vets don’t always know or understand their options,” says Jason Hansman, Director of External Program Relations, IAVA.
Whether it’s addressing a crisis moment or taking a more long-term approach, RRRP has helped veterans troubleshoot and resolve a wide range of problems. In one instance, a case manager linked up a veteran to a resource for emergency financial aid that enabled the veteran to pay his rent and prevented him from becoming homeless. In another case, a disabled veteran was able to get help with VA paperwork that allowed him and his wife to obtain a mortgage-free ADA-accessible home. And when one veteran expressed thoughts of suicide through Twitter, a case manager responded by immediately connecting the veteran to the services of Veterans Crisis Line, and then followed up to help the veteran address the underlying issues causing his stress.
“And it’s not just veterans-based programs we’re working with, but everything and anything that will help people, so we’re looking outside the vets’ space as well,” says Mr. Hansman. “We get them to a trusted provider they feel comfortable with, including non-VA resources.” A 2011 NYSHealth-supported study, conducted by RAND Corporation, found that nearly 50% of New York State veterans with a mental health need would prefer to receive mental health services outside the VA system.
RRRP’s expansion across New York State allowed it to connect with veterans in hard-to-reach areas, especially in rural communities and upstate. IAVA staff members also did targeted outreach about the program in Buffalo, Syracuse, Rochester, and Fort Drum—cities with high numbers of returning veterans and families of servicemembers. Spouses, parents, and other family members also can get in touch with RRRP for help if the veteran can’t advocate for him- or herself or if they need resources themselves. Over the course of NYSHealth’s grant support, RRRP worked with 125 veterans and family members statewide and made more than 160 referrals linking clients to services and resources in their communities. IAVA continues to offer RRRP to veterans and their families throughout New York State.
RRRP’s accessibility by phone or e-mail also has helped remove a major stumbling block for many veterans. While some live far from VA resources or are otherwise geographically isolated from services, others suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder or other mental health conditions and often have difficulty leaving the home for help. “Mental health is the backdrop to a lot of the issues we’re seeing,” says RRRP Supervisor Kimberly Ahearn Young. “When veterans and their families contact us, barriers can feel a little lower and it’s less scary.”
*Name changed to protect privacy