Lending a hand to veterans

Michelle Wulfson | The ItemCatherine Prestigiovanni, Charles Bischoff and Shirley Uriostegui with Tri-County Behavioral Health 

Tri-County Behavioral Health’s Veterans Service is less than eight years-old, starting from a grant and growing tremendously during its time, to support an entire population of veterans and their families that have never had access to help before.

“It’s really exciting, because prior to this program, there was nothing but the VA,” said Catherine Prestigiovanni, senior director of strategic development at Tri-County Behavioral Health.

Mental health awareness and acceptance for the military realm has been on the rise throughout the nation for the past two decades. The number of veterans receiving mental health treatment from the Department of Veterans Affairs reportedly increased by 90% from FY 2006-2019. However, to Tri-County Behavioral Health regional veteran services liaison Shirley Uriostegui, Huntsville is a community that has felt neglected when it comes to health services and veteran specific needs.

According to the most recent United States Census, 2,546 veterans reside in Huntsville, while Sam Houston State University upholds its reputation for being a military friendly campus and is ranked as one of the top schools in the nation for veterans. However, despite the large veteran population in the area, the nearest Veteran Affairs clinic for Walker County veterans is nearly 31 miles east, in Conroe, a discouraging distance for veterans who are already struggling.

Tri-County Behavioral Health has been operating for 30 years, providing free services for mental health, mental illness, substance abuse and developmental disabilities to those in Liberty, Montgomery and Walker Counties.

With offices in Huntsville and specialty programs tailored to veterans, Tri-County Behavioral Health is hoping to branch out more in the area to let those affected by military service know that they can receive mental health and case management services closer to home and free of charge.

“If you’re not getting taken care of by the VA, I want to be that person that takes care of you,” said Charles Bischoff, peer service coordinator at Tri-County Behavioral Health. “Whether they can’t get services or they don’t want services through the VA, we want to be that person in our tri-county area to make sure that they feel that they can come get help with us.”

While Veterans Affairs offers great services to help veterans get on track, there are many that oftentimes slip through the cracks. The VA only serves those who have been in at least 24 months or the full period for which they were called to active duty in any one of the U.S. Military’s branches and possesses either an honorable or other than honorable discharge.

“It misses the bad conduct dishonorable discharge, or say if someone was put out from basic training because they got hurt, they’re not going to see them oftentimes,” Bischoff said.

“A lot of times, what we’re seeing is some of these dishonorable discharges typically happen because of choices that were made due to a mental illness or an underlying mental illness that they didn’t know about. So to tell someone that has a mental illness that they can’t help them, we’ve got a whole slew of folks out there that need help, but it’s not available to them until now that we’ve written these grants and created these programs for them,” Prestigiovanni added.

Veteran Services clients typically seek either case management, which works to find resources for the veterans, like permanent housing, or counseling services with minimal wait time and that won’t affect their disability rating.

“One of the things a lot of veterans worry about is that the way that the VA sees mental health is not always in congruent with what reality is,” Bischoff said.

Common mental health issues experienced by veterans like depression, anxiety and PTSD, fluctuate daily, and if a veteran reports being at a higher point through multiple visits without having a decrease, their disability could be reevaluated and compensation lessened.

“If you get 50% for your PTSD, it could get lowered to 30%, because you said two times in a row that you were feeling good,” Bischoff said. “You may be on medication, you may be having a good season of life, but then that third time you go in there, your life is completely in shambles, but now what they’ve done is lowered your rating. That creates more havoc for the veteran to go back to try to get that rating back to 50% from 30%.”

To better help their clients focus on their mental health, rather than the financials, services obtained through Tri-County Behavioral Health are not reported to the VA, enabling them to provide mental health services and case management without concern of effecting a veteran’s disability rating. Additionally, they provide counseling for family and loved ones to veterans that bear their own struggles at home.

“We were finding that the gaps in services were really very catastrophic to the family, the veteran would be getting mental health services, but it was also the spouse or children that also needed that support, guidance and that help,” Uriostegui said.

The Military Veteran Peer Network, spearheaded by Uriostegui, was the preemptive piece of what helped get Veteran Services off of the ground in 2014, connecting veteran clients with support personnel that have been through the same experiences as themselves.

“A lot of times, what we see is a veteran that is not ready to admit that they need help, and we are able to come in with that peer support, we acknowledge that these are things that a lot of us deal with. I know for myself and Charles, we have received our own mental health support in the past, so once we start talking with them about that, start breaking the stigma, it’s really easy to say, ‘you can see someone for the anxiety, we have someone available, someone that I trust as a veteran to provide those services,’” Uriostegui said. “It’s a lot easier for a veteran to connect with someone else that’s gone down that path and it’s all about the buddy system that’s engrained in us when we’re in service.”

Uriostegui is a U.S. Navy veteran, having served in both active duty and as a crypto tech in the Reserves. Upon returning to a ‘normal life,’ Uriostegui found herself struggling with anxiety and social anxieties when it came to a lack of security.

“In the military, you know that the person standing next to you is just as trained as you. In the Navy, we have duty, we are able to hold our weapons, we do operations and we know how to exit the building in a proper way, so one of the biggest things was now we’re in the civilian world and no one knows how to protect each other,” Uriostegui said.

With cognitive behavioral therapy, she was able to hone in on what she needed to feel protected and safe on a day-to-day basis, and now, Uriostegui is working to help other veterans find the support they need to lead a healthy life.

“For me, (my favorite part of being a peer mentor) is probably being able to assist someone and helping their family life,” Uriostegui said. “We’re all brothers and sisters in arms and to be able to help my brethren in this field, to say ‘I’m a little happier, I’m a little better in the community and I’m really able to see into the future of what my family can be,’ that’s really amazing.”

Bischoff, a former Iraq and Afghan combat medic, would agree.

“Helping people realize that breaking down the stigma of mental health and showing them that just because we have PTSD, depression or you’re suffering from a mental illness, it doesn’t mean you can’t live a fulfilled life,” Bischoff said. “You just have to learn how to cope with things. I think all too often, there’s a negative connotation, especially with the warrior culture that we have in the military, to not want to seek help, or somehow it makes you broken and you’re never going to get any better. So for me, it’s watching those people realize that they may have PTSD, but it doesn’t define who they are as a person, they can still go out and be an active, positive member in society, husband, wife, they can still be very impactful and have a memorable life.”

Prestigiovanni notes that she hopes to keep growing Veteran Services and continue to change the lives of heroes at risk of being left behind.

“To me, it’s amazing to watch folks that had such little trust in the process get better, believe and tell their friends. It’s just amazing to watch people grow and to be able to provide these services to them so that they can continue to grow,” she said.

Tri-County Behavioral Health can be reached at 1-800-550-8408 or via the crisis line at 1-800-659-6994.

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