Angela Lyon, a social worker and therapist at the Grand Island VA Medical Center in Nebraska, believes strongly in the power of preventative medicine. Especially when it comes to mental health.
“Something we see a lot of here at VA is people coming to us when they’re in crisis,” she said. “Wouldn’t it be better to reach them before they get to that point?”
A Pound of Cure
Not that long ago Lyon decided to focus her ‘Ounce of Prevention’ philosophy on an often underserved segment of the Veteran population: women. That’s why she started a unique women’s group called Rejuvenate.
The group meets two evenings each month, but usually not at VA. Instead the meet-ups occur at some convenient location out in the community —perhaps a local yoga studio or a nearby college campus.
“I felt that our younger women Vets just weren’t getting into the VA for the help they need,” Lyon said. “They have busy lives. They don’t have time to get to the VA, so I bring the VA to them. Good self-care doesn’t need to take place in a therapist’s office.”
The group’s informal, relaxed atmosphere appears to be one of its most important features.
“I wanted Rejuvenate to feel less like a therapy group and more like a community,” Lyon explained. “First we eat dinner together. Then we do some activity like yoga, or finger-painting, or music therapy.”
She added: “Art, music and mindfulness are all tools that a therapist can use to assist in promoting good overall mental health. I might have someone help me lead an art project, but I’ll do the therapeutic part of the conversation.”
It Takes a Village
Local eating establishments provide dinner. Group activities are provided by local artists, musicians, yoga instructors, massage therapists and professionals skilled in the art of acupuncture. All free of charge.
“I’m trying to use the assets we have in our community to create something that’s good for our women Vets,” Lyon said. “And the community has been very responsive.”
But the food and activities are merely a pleasant backdrop to what’s really going on at Rejuvenate meetings.
“I wanted to try an approach that gives these women a safe place to focus on themselves,” Lyon said. “It’s something they don’t normally allow themselves to do. They’re accustomed to cramming their day with activities so they don’t have to think about things they don’t want to think about.”
Jennifer Kerkman, a 26-year-old Navy Vet who served in Afghanistan and Africa, feels her Rejuvenate get-togethers are teaching her an important lesson. “I’m learning to slow down instead of stretching myself too thin,” she said. “I’m learning how not to be so hard on myself.”
Kerkman admits she has a tendency to put herself under a lot of pressure.
“I work several different jobs,” she said. “I’m also a full-time student at Central Community College. I’m training to be a physician’s assistant. So I’m busy. But the Rejuvenate meetings allow me to take some time for myself. And I’m connecting with other women Veterans who have busy lives, just like me. I’m forming friendships.”
The Navy Veteran said every Rejuvenate meeting starts out the same way: “One of the first questions they always ask us at the meeting is, ‘What did you do for yourself in the last week?’ At tomorrow’s meeting I’m going to tell them I got a pedicure.”
And of course, there’s all those fun activities.
“So far I liked the finger-painting the best,” Kerkman said. “I liked the painting I did. I didn’t know what kind of picture it would be when I started. But it ended up being a heart.”
The finger-painting episode was also a big hit with another Rejuvenate participant, Cecilia Buchanan.
“It was just fun,” said the 36-year-old Army Vet who served in Kosovo and Iraq. “I haven’t finger-painted since forever, since I was in kindergarten. While we were painting everyone was talking and laughing. We were giving each other crap about our horrible artwork…
The Rejuvenators — Kneeling, L to R: Jennifer Kerkman and Dorinda Brown. Back row, L to R: Jennifer Dillin, Cecilia Buchanan, Lindsey Rust, Ashley Allen, Heather Feigner
“It was fun to see what the other women would create,” she continued. “After I messed up my painting for the third time I just smacked my whole hand down on the paper and Touchdown! I was done. That was my painting.
“It’s a very beautiful piece of work,” she laughed. “When I showed it to my husband he said he was going to frame it and invite people over to look at it.”
Buchanan, an on-the-go mother of five, said she likes Rejuvenate meetings because they give her an opportunity to jump off life’s merry-go-round and just unwind.
“It gives me a chance to decompress and relieve some of my anxiety,” she said. “We all have families and jobs and kids and pets, so life is busy. It can be stressful. So it’s good to have some place to go where you can talk to other women and just relax and have fun. We talk about whatever’s on our mind.”
She added: “The comradery I find there is what you experience in the military. But unlike the military, this group has a calming effect. I like that.”
To learn more about health care and other resources available to women Veterans, visit www.womenshealth.va.gov
Need to talk with someone about how you’re feeling? Call the Women Veterans Call Center at 1.855.VA.WOMEN. All the representatives there are women, and many are Veterans themselves. They can connect you with the resources you need to start feeling better again.
Need immediate help? Call the Veterans Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255 (Press 1) or visit www.veteranscrisisline.net