An alarming number of suicides among American soldiers has/have been pressuring the VA to improve mental health services for veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. As a result, the U.S. Veterans Affairs Department plans to add nearly 2,000 employees to reduce wait times for appointments. In Milwaukee, a growing number of vets dissatisfied with the VA have been supplementing their government care with therapy at an outside clinic. As WUWM’s Erin Toner reports, it offers a less structured approach.
Veteran Quest is a mental health clinic in West Allis, though it feels more like a modern VFW post. Clients socialize, sometimes popping in for a soda or relaxing in the patriotically decorated lounge. Twenty-nine-year-old Manny Mora Jr. is often a fixture at the kitchen table, hunched over his college textbooks.
“I come over here, even if I don’t have an appointment, just to stop to chat with the guys a little bit. That’s something that I definitely like,” Mora says.
Mora has Post Traumatic Stress Disorder from his deployment to Iraq in 2003. He patrolled highways riddled with IEDs. Mora says, when he came home, he preferred isolation.
“Didn’t want to talk with family members, didn’t want to deal with anybody else. Even tried to attempt to find work, but that was another difficulty in itself,” Mora says.
Nearly a decade after his service, Mora continues treatment for PTSD at the VA hospital in Milwaukee. It provides him with medication and two appointments per month, but he says he’s not getting a lot out of those sessions.
“The psychologist, the one I’ve worked with, he’s alright but it’s kind of like…‘Oh…Hi, how’s it going...you have this issue,’ then out the door,” Mora says.
So Mora seeks the bulk of his psychotherapy at Veteran Quest. Volunteers provide services free of charge, while donations fund the rest of the operation.
Psychotherapist Kathy Anderson is the clinic’s assistant director. She says many clients are just like Manny Mora – they are not completely satisfied with their VA care.
“They might be put into a program for several weeks, but then afterwards, they don’t have a weekly therapist, a trauma therapist that they sit down and talk to. That’s what we’re hearing and those are the people that are coming here,” Anderson says.
Anderson says, by contrast, she works 24 hours a day. Clients can see her immediately and as often as they wish, and they can text her anytime they feel they’re in crisis.
“Therapists usually go home at the end of the day. People don’t have their cell phone number. They’re not on crisis call 24/7, but that’s just not how we do it here,” Anderson says.
Government reports have documented long wait times at VAs for mental health care and veterans have criticized them for years for not addressing problems among those who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“There have been concerns, there’s no question.”
Dr. Michael McBride is head of the PTSD treatment program at the Milwaukee VA. He says while the system is not perfect, it has made significant improvements, such as assuring an initial appointment within 14 days. McBride says the Milwaukee branch has nearly doubled its staff of mental health providers, and gives veterans individualized treatment plans that include more-frequent counseling when needed.
“So I think the concern about, ‘I can’t get an appointment at the VA,’ I frankly have trouble believing that now,” McBride says.
McBride acknowledges Veteran Quest has been filling a need. Yet he has concerns about the involvement of multiple providers – especially if the VA doctors administering medication are not kept abreast of a patient’s progress.
“This can be a lethal condition. And we’ve seen that unfortunately with many tragedies in our community and across the country so we have to be very thoughtful and caring about the quality of care that we’re providing,” McBride says.
Officials at the VA and Veteran Quest say moving forward, they will work together to make sure shared patients are getting the best care possible.
The clinic’s Kathy Anderson she understands inherent danger lies in mixed messages.
“I have a client that might be telling the psychiatrist one thing, and telling me another thing, which is why there has to be that communication,” Anderson says.
However, networking could become increasingly difficult as caseloads at both organizations swell. Veteran Quest has already outgrown its one-year-old facility and may soon apply for grants to expand.