November 1st, 2011

Program trains veterans to treat their counterparts

A new program in Massachusetts aims to train military veterans who are interested in mental health careers and pair them up with veterans in need of services.

“Train Vets to Treat Vets,” a partnership between the Department of Veterans’ Services and the Massachusetts School of Professional Psychology (MSPP), started this summer and will place and supervise veterans who are MSPP graduate interns in veterans’ outreach services centers. The partnership strives to provide culturally sensitive services and also offer veterans interested in mental health care the credentials to make it a career.

“Our expectation is that a person who has had military experience, especially people who have had combat experience, are in a unique position to offer mental health care to returning veterans,” says Nicholas Covino, Psy.D., MSPP president. “The literature is divided as to whether it’s required, but certainly, the personal experience that a veteran has of being in a combat situation gives them a unique perspective on the people they would be providing mental health care for.”

“The philosophy behind this program is the same philosophy we brought to our Latino mental health program, which is, if you’re going to work in a multicultural way, you’re going to have to understand the culture,” he said. “The most competent person, the person who is best able to understand the culture, is somebody who has lived it.”

When MSPP started its Latino program five years ago, seven students and one faculty member, were Spanish-speaking; now, there are nearly 50 students and eight faculty members.

The number of people with military experience who are trained as mental health professionals is infinitesimally small, Covino says. As part of “Train Vets to Treat Vets,” service personnel currently at MSPP are helping with outreach and mentoring for people with military service who are interested in the field and are also working with MSPP faculty to come up with a model curriculum that defines an academic area of competence for people to work with veterans.

MSPP is also putting students and faculty in the field to increase the service delivery potential at two Massachusetts veteran centers, which help connect veterans to benefits or emergency housing. “We’d like to add some additional mental health care,” he says.

Covino also stressed the importance for non-veteran mental health professionals to get additional training to better serve veterans and their families, who also pay a price for deployment.

“With two million people returning from a very traumatic experience largely into civilian life, and rightly half of them with families and children, I would hope that mental health professionals would do what they could to open their practices and sharpen their skills and expand their competencies to treat these folks,” he says.

Covino says he hopes in time to offer training for the general practitioner through the MSPP continuing education program. A spring conference is planned.

“The consequences of this war are going to be far greater than the consequences of Vietnam-era wars,” he says. “People have multiple deployments. It’s a smaller force. They are citizen soldiers who live a war zone one day and within two or three days, they find themselves back at work with civilians. They aren’t part of a base.”

“The statistics indicate people with multiple deployments have been exposed more to trauma,” he says. “These are people who are going to have PTSD, depression and mental health disorders in large numbers.”

Children whose parents are deployed have special concerns and amidst a shortage of child psychologists, all mental health professionals should be more aware of their needs and of other issues like substance abuse and traumatic brain injury.

“There are very simple interventions that can be offered and we need to make them more available to families than we do,” Covino adds.

By Pamela Berard

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