Texas VA employees create special tree to help Veterans facing mental health issues


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HARLINGEN, Texas —The second floor of the VA Health Care Center (HCC) here looks a bit more festive and colorful than usual thanks to a special tree that was created with an important message in mind.

Almost 100 people participated in a special project that resulted in the creation of a Recovery Holiday Tree.

According to VA psychologist, Dr. Pamela Smith, the purpose of the Recovery Holiday Tree is to spread the message of hope – that “Recovery is Possible”, and to increase awareness about VA’s orientation towards mental health care both locally and across the nation.

Smith who serves as the local recovery coordinator (LRC) for VA Texas Valley Coastal Bend Health Care System (VCB) went further by explaining that the special project like all mental health services are, “recovery-oriented.”

She said such services are designed to support a Veteran’s or Veteran’s family’s efforts to live their lives fully and help accomplish what is most meaningful to them, with or without presence of mental illness.

Smith came up with the idea back in the fall while visiting the Brownsville Historical Association when she learned of their announcement inviting groups to enter a decorated tree into their Christmas Tree Forest Exhibit.

“I had recently arrived at VCB to serve as the local recovery coordinator and saw this as an opportunity to engage staff and Veterans around recovery-oriented Care,” said Smith.  “Specifically, I thought having Veterans and staff get together to make ornaments with personal recovery messages and images would be a really fun way for me to get our mental health providers and staff thinking about recovery and bringing these concepts to the Veterans in their therapy and support groups.”

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Smith said she wanted Veterans to actively visualize and write about their recovery goals and what has supported their recovery so far.

Smith also said that another objective of the mental health project was to have staff and Veterans share in the making of ornaments for the tree which could possibility break down the stigma about mental health a bit, and reduce the perceived distance between providers and Veterans.

“Mental health conditions are so common among the general population, I tend to believe that many of us are on some form of recovery journey,” said Smith.

Approximately 75 Veterans and their family members participated in the worthwhile artistic endeavor.

Most of the ornaments were made in group settings, but some Veterans learned about the project in individual sessions.

Smith said the enthusiasm about creating the tree was so great some patients took supplies home and made ornaments with their families, friends and other support groups, such as Veteran Females United. The ornaments were then brought to over to be displayed on the tree.

The vast majority of decorations were hand-made by Veterans, with images and words about what recovery means to them personally, but the tree also included some resources such as ornaments that listing the times and dates of the Peer Support Groups here at HCC, as well as some that communicated the key elements of Recovery-Oriented Care – such as hope, peer support, mutual respect, and self-advocacy for example.

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The message of “Recovery is Possible” was extended all the way to the base of the special tree, thanks to one creative VA employee.

“Ms. Karen Lara had the brainstorm to make recovery ‘gift’ packages to place under the tree,” said Smith. “Each is labelled with a key principle of recovery.”

Participation in the project has proven to be effective from the very first day the tree was put up, as proven by the positive feedback from Veterans.

“I think it turned out well, and I think hand-made ornaments will draw people’s attention,” said U.S. Marine Corps Veteran John Raschilla, who helped the mental health staff put up the tree at the VA medical facility’s second floor. “A lot of them [the ornaments] have some unique messages. I really like this one that says, ‘If you ever find yourself in a hole, remember to stop digging.”

According to Smith this winter holiday season is the first time that a Recovery Holiday Tree has ever been put up in the VA facility, but not the first one in the lower Rio Grande Valley.

Another Recovery Holiday Tree is currently on display at the Brownsville Historical Association in their Christmas Tree Forest Exhibit. Its inclusion in the exhibit is part of the mental health clinics several outreach efforts to raise awareness in the different communities VCB serves.

Smith said she hopes next year’s project will include displaying a similar tree in the city of Harlingen so more people can enjoy the display and  continue to spread the message of hope that “Recovery is Possible.”

(Mentioning of any private individuals or groups is strictly for news purposes. No federal endorsement intended or implied.)

Author

Luis Loza Gutierrez

Luis H. Loza Gutierrez joined the Department of Veterans Affairs in October of 2017 and serves as a public affairs specialist for VA Texas Valley Coastal Bend Health Care System.

In addition to winning multiple awards as a writer, photographer, illustrator and graphic artist during his more than 10 years in the U.S. Air Force as a public affairs specialist and photojournalist, L.G. (as he was called by his fellow Airmen) also served as a member for the Air Force Honor Guard at the base-level during his last permanent-duty station in North Dakota.

He volunteered to deploy out of cycle twice in a period of less 18 months, the second of which included a six-month tour as a member of the public affairs team at USF-I Headquarters at Camp Victory in Baghdad.

The now retired non-commissioned officer returned home to the Rio Grande Valley in deep South Texas in November of 2015, and feels enthusiastic and honored to continue to serve his fellow brothers- and sisters-in-arms as a member of the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs.

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