Local program provides specialized therapy for military and first responders
Stress on the job means something completely different when you wear a uniform. So, it’s not surprising that treatment for those who have experienced trauma on the job needs to be something different as well.
“This isn’t therapy the way you think therapy is. Our approach to treatment is unique.”
David Strother is the director of military services for the Valor Recovery Program. It’s a 28-day inpatient program specifically designed to treat trauma, PTSD, addiction and military sexual assault for active-duty military, veterans and first responders.
Located at Signature Psychiatric Hospital (on the North Kansas City Hospital campus), the program has built that uniqueness on the experience of its staff. Strother said that about half the team is composed of military veterans or former first responders. A former Marine himself, Strother spent time in Afghanistan before working as a firefighter while earning advanced degrees in social psychology.
“It’s a passion project for us; I hire people I like to work with and who give a damn,” he says. “When our patients come, they don’t have to educate us as they’re getting treatment. We’re not trying to learn about your job . . . We know your job.”
And that familiarity, he says, is how Valor, which opened in August 2017, is beginning to make a dent in a growing need for services for this vulnerable group, where the suicide rate continues to rise.
“The stigma is so pervasive that patients sometimes feel that clinicians aren’t equipped to deal with their specific issues,” he says. “And there’s a little bit of legitimacy with that because sometimes you have to be able to understand what that person’s saying. I’ve been there, so it makes it easier for them to access care.”
Rod Richter was a firefighter for 28 years and completed the Valor program this past June. He says the culture at Valor was a key reason he was able to get help.
“Even on days when I wanted to quit, they didn’t quit on me,” he says. “The people, who no matter how much I bitched and griped and complained, loved me and took care of me, and knew they could help me and didn’t give up on me.”
Many first responders, like Richter, are referred to the program from other clinicians or from peers within their departments. To reach active-duty military, the Valor staff has built relationships and referral paths with the local and regional military bases, all of which are currently sending patients to Valor, Strother says. The program has also been added to some commercial insurance panels.
Strother says he uses a straight-talk approach to teach patients the reason behind their symptoms as well as practical skills to overcome them.
“I don’t dumb things down to my patients,” he says. “So, we’re talking about neurobiology, we’re not just doing the touchy-feely therapy. I’m trying to teach them how trauma and addiction has affected their brain and teach them about strong coping skills. I teach them things that will keep them from hollering at their wife when they’re angry. I teach them how to deal with work, I teach them what their symptomology really is.”
For the majority of patients, Strother says, most of their intense symptoms – such as nightmares, flashbacks and hyperarousal – are gone by the end of the 28 days. Some patients also receive an additional two weeks of outpatient treatment or a referral to another clinician, and the staff conducts follow-up calls at regular intervals over the next few months.
However, Strother says the biggest obstacle to overcome is often a simple change in mindset.
“Most of the people who come to me are already strong. I’m not trying to teach them to be strong, I’m trying to teach them to be vulnerable, which is a totally different skill,” he says. “These people have been holding on to pain for sometimes over a decade or more. So, it’s not about if you’re able to lift the load, it’s about wanting to let it go.”
By the Numbers:
· 6,132 – Number of veterans who die by suicide in one year in U.S.
· 1,387 – Number of service members who died by suicide in one year in U.S.
· 20.6 – Average number of suicides each day (veterans, active-duty, reservists)
· 154 – Number of veteran suicides in Missouri (2016)
(Source: U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs)
· 1 in 4 – Number of active-duty members who show signs of a mental health condition
(Source: JAMA Psychiatry)
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255
Veterans Crisis Line:
o 800-273-8255 and press 1
o Text to 838255
Safe Helpline (hotline for members of the DoD community affected by sexual assault): 877-995-5247