By Paul R. Pace, News Staff
An effort to improve the skills of social workers and other community mental health professionals in addressing the mental health concerns of returning war veterans and their families has grown into a wide-ranging initiative in New York State.
Reinaldo Cardona, executive director of the NASW New York State Chapter, said he and his staff started the project after receiving a grant from New York lawmakers interested in helping the state’s tens of thousands of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and/or traumatic brain injury.
The effort, known as the Veterans’ Mental Health Training Initiative, saw the chapter and partner organizations host five regional conferences across the state in 2009 and 2010. It trained nearly 1,000 mental health professionals on the special needs of this group. After the first phase, the need for additional and more advanced clinical training in this area was critical to building skill proficiency in the workforce, Cardona said.
The New York State Health Foundation learned about the first phase of the initiative and decided to support its continuation with a grant for a 2011-12 phase. It is supporting the training of four regional conferences for not only social workers, but also psychologists, psychiatrists, mental health practitioners, addictions counselors and others.
Col. James D. McDonough Jr. (retired) is a Senior Fellow for Veterans Affairs for the New York State Health Foundation. He said the foundation offered the grant to better address the mental health needs of returning Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans and their families.
McDonough — who serves on the VMHTI advisory board, was in the U.S. Army for 26 years and ran a nonprofit organization that assisted veterans and their families — said the level of quality in the training is inspiring.
“The idea that we can train social workers to better educate the mental health community is near and dear to my heart,” he said.
Also on the VMHTI advisory board is Frank Dowling, a clinical associate professor of psychiatry at the State University of New York at Stony Brook and a medical adviser for police organizations providing peer assistance.
He said of the 20 million military personnel who served in the Iraq and Afghanistan missions, 20 percent suffer from a spectrum of PTSD or TBI. It’s important that social workers, psychologists, psychiatrists and medical professionals be better informed of this group’s particular mental health needs, he said.
“The training is excellent,” Dowling said of VMHTI. “The leadership has done an awesome job of pulling together a strong advisory board that covers all the areas, including culture issues and stigma and family issues. They are using experts and they deserve kudos for that.”
Cardona said the New York State legislature has provided another grant that will be shared among the chapter and two other organizations to support a third phase of the training, with a special focus on primary care physicians.
Cardona said it is important that the chapter spearhead VMHTI, which has earned respect among the mental health and health care communities in the state.
“Social workers provide the majority of mental health care services in this country,” he said. “We hope to replicate this program across the country.”
For a complete overview of VMHTI, visit the NASW New York State Chapter website at www.naswnys.org/veterans.html