Clinic helps veterans, first responders with free care
PARAMUS, N.J. (AP) — They are there to protect and serve. They are Army Strong. They do whatever it takes and are exposed to trauma most people can’t fathom.
But what about when the shift, deployment or career ends?
Suicide and addiction occur at a staggering rate among first responders and military members, due to post-traumatic stress disorder, coupled with a gaping hole in accessible, appropriate mental health care and a stigma that keeps many of them from seeking help, said Navy veteran Eric Golnick.
The “epidemic” is the reason he founded Veteran & First Responder Healthcare, an outpatient clinic with a location in Paramus that recently partnered with the state Department of Military and Veterans Affairs to offer free mental health services to veterans and first responders.
During Golnick’s last deployment as a Navy officer, he said, he had a sailor die by suicide in front of him.
Suicide is on the rise among veterans and first responders,statistics show. More police officers and firefighters died last year by suicide than in the line of duty, according to a study by the Ruderman Family Foundation, a nonprofit that works for the rights of people with disabilities.
On average, 20 veterans die by suicide every day, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs reports.
“I don’t want to ever have to look another family in the eyes and say, ‘I’m sorry that this happened to your son or daughter,’ ” Golnick said.
To him as an officer, enlisted sailors were like his children, Golnick said. Still, it wasn’t until years later that feelings of guilt and shame about what happened surfaced and the PTSD began to take hold.
Golnick began drinking to excess. When he tried to get help, he encountered a lack of “cultural understanding” between himself and a psychologist who had never served.
“If I hadn’t been self-aware enough or in a place where I was ready to get help, I would have just been like, ‘The heck with this,’ which I think is what happens to many veterans,” he said.
That’s why when a close friend asked Golnick to step in as the CEO of Veteran & First Responder Healthcare — part of Strive Healthcare, which serves the general population — he jumped at the chance.
“For me, it’s a way to continue to serve,” he said. “I feel like I’m giving back to the folks that I served with.”
The program is led and designed by people who understand where first responders and veterans are coming from, often via firsthand experience. They work in concert with the state and the federal Department of Veterans Affairs in an effort to fill in health care gaps.
Veteran & First Responder Healthcare will be offered at the Strive Center and Community Health in Paramus. VFR Healthcare in partnership with the NJ Department of Military and Veteran Affairs will offer outpatient, substance-abuse and mental health trauma-informed treatment programs and services designed specifically for Veterans, First Responders, and their families. An open house was held at the Strive center in Paramus on Tuesday, December 11, 2018.
Veteran & First Responder Healthcare will be offered at the Strive Center and Community Health in Paramus. VFR Healthcare in partnership with the NJ Department of Military and Veteran Affairs will offer outpatient, substance-abuse and mental health trauma-informed treatment programs and services designed specifically for Veterans, First Responders, and their families. An open house was held at the Strive center in Paramus on Tuesday, December 11, 2018. (Photo: Amy Newman/Northjersey.com)
Deborah McKinley, vice president for programming at the clinic, said there’s a misconception among veterans and their loved ones that when they come home, they’re well.
“Active military personnel today have to be hyperaware of everything that’s going on around them,” she said. “People think and veterans themselves think that once they’re home, any symptoms they have — PTSD, substance misuse, trauma — will be ameliorated right when they walk in their front door.”
That’s not generally the case, McKinley said.
Jenn Stivers, clinical outreach coordinator for the clinic, said multiple deployments compound the problem.
“If you keep getting deployed, you’re more likely to experience trauma, traumatic brain injury, physical injury,” Stivers said. “Personal lives can be affected, relationships, families. It becomes harder and harder to readjust to civilian life and harder to relate to other people or ask for help.”
What’s more, veterans are trained not to talk about their problems, Stivers said.
“You pick yourself up by your bootstraps, and that works when you’re in active duty in a combat situation, but when you’re dealing with everyday life, that can get in the way if you’re experiencing problems,” she said.
Vets are a “stubborn bunch of folks,” Golnick said. In their minds, they’re the protectors, there to help other people. The stigma surrounding mental illness makes veterans fear that they’re going to lose their job or security clearance, or be seen by peers in a different light.
The same holds true for first responders, said Robert Williams, program manager at the Paramus clinic and a former emergency medical services technician in East Orange.
Responding to devastating scenes “takes a toll on you mentally and psychologically,” he said. He recalls being particularly touched by incidents involving babies or pregnant women when he was about to become a father himself.
Still, the first responder culture doesn’t promote talking about trauma with colleagues, Williams said.
“It really affected me — I couldn’t sleep,” he said. “But it’s that culture: You can drink and get high together, but you don’t talk about the experiences you’ve had. It’s really about keeping the pretense of ‘We can handle it.’ ”
Golnick said a particular focus of the program is treating the underserved veteran populations, such as women and the LGBTQ community.
Many female veterans are affected by military sexual trauma — ranging from harassment to assault — though men are also affected, McKinley said. Women are also not always recognized as veterans by the general population and a have a less robust community of peers to rely on.
“Recognizing that this is a population that has a different experience of combat and service and being able to provide for these folks is so important,” McKinley said.
Williams said the specialized nature of the program — veterans helping veterans, first responders helping first responders — is key to creating a sense of trust and understanding and an ironclad support system.
“Our tagline is ‘You served, now let us serve you,’ and that’s something everyone in our organization really stands behind, because we have experienced firsthand what service means,” she said. “We understand how the culture promotes teamwork, understanding, integrity, quality and commitment. We feel we can provide those things in helping someone access care when they come home.”
Information from: The Record (Woodland Park, N.J.), http://www.northjersey.com