The first steps to whole health

Published 7:11 pm Friday, August 3, 2018

Recently, a Vietnam veteran named Wayne motored his wheelchair up to a table where he joined three other veterans on a panel at the Durham VA Mental Health summit on suicide prevention. When his turn came, his words, more matter of fact than eloquent, spoke of a four-decade journey through addiction, abuse, depression and hopelessness. Everyone in the large conference room seemed to hang onto his every word as his story shrank the distance between audience and narrator.

The vet spoke of witnessing his first combat death soon after arriving on his first tour, when gunfire exploded his platoon member’s head right in front of him. Those in the audience understood that this story also told of more deaths and trauma-inducing experiences that were left unsaid. He spoke measuredly, with pauses suggesting a disconnect between thought and expression. More than occasionally, his hands gently shook. He told us he was saved from his own death when someone pointed him in the direction of the VA not long ago, and he decided to seek help after he had struggled over many years buried in the haze of alcohol and drugs, with many starts to find a way out and equally as many failed endings. His success after so many years was a result of circumstance, an end of the road feeling, opportunity, and who knows, a good day with a promise of hope when he walked into the VA that morning.

His panel was part of a full day of presentations on a variety of topics related to mental health and the veteran. However, what was the most important contribution to many was the presentation on how the relationship between the VA and the veteran reflects a directional shift from disease management to one of a life-long whole health care partnership between the patient, his/her family and the VA. Like other facets of our health care system, the cost of care for veterans is a pressing issue. The VA is advocating an approach that “empowers and equips the Veteran to take charge of their health and well-being to live their life to the fullest.” At the core of this approach is an equation that features the veteran, mindful and aware of his or her health needs, using self-care and the VA’s professional mental and physical care services, and incorporating healthy living programs such as yoga, art therapy, gardening and others. This model of whole person health has been widely adopted in many sectors of society.

The Vietnam veteran’s story provides a good example of how such a holistic partnership can work, as he was now involved in a multifaceted approach to his wellbeing. However, no matter what model of care the VA adopts, it can’t work if the veteran doesn’t seek help to begin with. Community becomes that last important piece in the equation. The community of veterans helps create an important support network, the family another. But from a larger perspective, it is the community of folks, like us in Washington, who play an important role in understanding veteran needs and providing the support the tribe can’t — understanding, opportunity and resources for organizations that aid veterans. Without someone to point him in the right direction, that last step the veteran took that morning would not have been his first step on the path to recovery.

Robert Greene-Sands is an anthropologist and CEO of the Pamlico Rose Institute for Sustainable Communities in Washington.