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March 2015 Feature Article

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Veteran Employment Services

Posted March 06, 2015

Disabilities, lack of civilian work experience, and difficulties adjusting to civilian life are just a few obstacles that Veterans face when looking for a job after deployment. For those who are struggling with PTSD, substance abuse, or other mental health conditions, employment may seem even further out of reach. "For many people with mental health problems, one of the most concerning and important things to them is to return to an active functional life in society and doing well at their workplaces," says Dr. Charles Drebing. Dr. Drebing is a psychologist and Chief of Mental Health for the Bedford VA Hospital, as well as a researcher/Associate Director of the New England Mental Illness Research Education and Clinical Center (MIRECC)who has worked with Compensated Work Therapy(CWT) for 20 years. Compensated Work Therapy is a VA program that provides vocational services that aim to match and support work-ready Veterans in jobs, and to consult with businesses regarding their specific employment needs.

Man walking with uniformThere are several CWT programs that are available nationwide, such as Supported Employment. Supported Employment provides one-on-one support to Veterans with a serious mental health condition to help them to obtain meaningful employment. A vocational specialist will identify jobs based on the Veteran's skills, interests, and preferences, then work with a potential employer to arrange a working relationship that matches the Veteran's skills and the employer's needs. The program brings together a vocational counselor and the Veteran's mental health treatment team to develop a detailed plan to ensure that he/she will get the support they need to be successful in their new job. Furthermore, there are various CWT programs that are provided at a regional level, including Supported Self-Employment for Veterans who are interested in starting their own business; Supported Education for those at Bedford who are thinking about going back to school; and VITAL for those who are already enrolled in a college but are looking for support in succeeding their college career.

One success story of the Supported Employment program is John (an alias to protect privacy), a Veteran who didn't work for 30 years and had a dual-diagnosis of a serious mental illness and substance abuse. John was interested in going back to work, particularly at a local home improvement store, since one of his hobbies is working with small construction projects. After reaffirming John's strengths and interests, the vocational specialist negotiated with the home improvement store and eventually helped him get hired. Although John started out collecting shopping carts, he worked on his customer services skills by interacting and developing relationships with many of the local contractors. Because of his improved interpersonal skills, John moved up in the company and eventually worked at a contractor's desk to facilitate lumber transfer. He was Employee of the Month twice, and kept the job for five years before he decided to move onto something else.

Dr. Lisa Mueller, a Clinical Director of vocational services for the Bedford VA and Researcher at VISN1 MIRECC, believes that vocational services can be an entry way to mental health services for Veterans. Veterans may not be interested in mental health services at first. But as they develop a relationship with the VA through participation in these vocational services, they are able to be connected with the right folks as symptoms of PTSD or depression appear. Since they already have trust and rapport with VA providers, these Veterans will have better treatment outcome. As Dr. Drebing says, "If we as clinicians only focus on the symptoms but don't pay attention to other important factors like employment, then we are not serving those Veterans well. We are only offering sub-optimal clinical care. That's why we try to make vocational services central to mental health services."

Many Veterans who have gone through these programs not only find stable employment but also greater purpose in life. Their success stories serve as an inspiration for other Veterans and motivation for VA providers like Drs. Drebing and Mueller to keep these vocational programs up and running.

If you are interested in learning more about these programs, visit the CWT website.