By Kim North Shine
Life after serving in the the military can be a battle all its own for some veterans—finding fruitful employment and a place to live, readjusting to family and friends. But perhaps the biggest challenge for many is dealing with mental health challenges.
Veterans are often reluctant to seek mental health care due to the stigma around mental illness and not having access to care because of financial or geographic limitations.
Since 2009, the University of Michigan Depression Center’s M-SPAN (Military Support Programs and Networks) and, specifically, its Buddy-to-Buddy Volunteer Veteran Program, has paired trained volunteer veterans with other veterans, helping them spot warning signs and connecting them with resources.
“Nobody knows what it’s like to have served except for those who have served,” said Alyssa Wealty, communications specialist for Buddy-to-Buddy.
Over the last 10 years, Buddy-to-Buddy has trained more than 350 veterans and assisted more than 5,300 service members and veterans across Michigan.
Unable to pay a utility bill or rent? Need a doctor, but can’t afford it? Looking for affordable child care, work or job training? Feeling hopeless, useless or having trouble adjusting?
These and any number of concerns are among those heard by volunteers from veterans in their communities. Many times the veterans looking to connect with a veteran or service or other help calls Buddy-to-Buddy’s 1-800 phone line.
While any number of services and assistance are made available by the veterans trained, offering referrals to counseling and mental health services is a critical component of M-SPAN and Buddy-to-Buddy.
“We provide [volunteer veterans] with discussions about what red flags are, mental health, substance abuse emergencies, what to do when they identify those things,” said Army veteran Adam Jando, a Buddy-to-Buddy program social worker.
Some veterans simply need peer support from someone who has been there. Often, Buddy-to-Buddy volunteers offering that support were once on the receiving end.
“The Buddy-to-Buddy program basically recognizes that you’re a veteran, that you’re probably reluctant to ask for help if you need it, but maybe you’ll talk to another veteran,” said Bruce Spiher, a Navy veteran and Buddy-to-Buddy volunteer from Ann Arbor.
The volunteers—or buddies—go through an initial eight-hour training and then participate in weekly educational and support calls led by the program’s staff.
“They’re teaching us some of the struggles that (veterans) face after getting out of the military and then they’re giving us the list of resources that we can provide to them to ensure that they’re successful with their transition,” said Josh Moschino, a Marine Corps veteran from Sterling Heights.
As a veteran and volunteer with the Buddy-to-Buddy program, he understands exactly where veterans are coming from.
“It’s if you have a problem, suck it up and drive on. And that can be toxic.”
– Bianca Racine, U.S. Army veteran & Buddy-to-Buddy volunteer
Moschino and other volunteers have provided help in ways large and small: A heater for a 97-year-old World War II veteran trying to stay warm through the winter; short-term financial assistance for a disabled veteran couple about to be evicted; service dogs and support for a veteran’s service dog project.
A lot of people are trained “not to talk,’ said Bianca Racine, an Army veteran and resident of Westland.
“It’s ‘If you have a problem, suck it up and drive on.’ And that can be toxic,” she said.
Volunteer and Vietnam veteran Bob Short helped Racine and now she is doing for others what Short did for her.
“Just the fact that they feel so strongly about the work that they’re doing and the impact that it has is a real testament to the value and the importance of the program,” Wealty said.