In the last five weeks I have heard that phrase delivered with exasperation, anger, humor and more knowing looks than I can count. I am new to the VA and new to serving Veterans. I expected to be green. I just didn’t expect that being “inducted” into the VA would be such a loaded subject for so many people.
I didn’t always know that I wanted to work with Veterans. However, I’ve known since the fourth grade that I wanted to be a psychologist. I knew back then that I wanted to understand and help people, even when they couldn’t understand and help themselves. Easing pain – even just a little bit – one person at a time has always been my personal mission. I was working as the only psychologist in four counties of rural Kansas, focusing my work to help people with Borderline Personality Disorder. I understand emotional pain, and I believe I have a gift for seeing through it to the person locked inside.
In December, that gift brought me to Southeast Louisiana Veterans Health Care System as the new Suicide Prevention Coordinator. Suicide has become the 10th leading cause of death for all Americans; for Veterans the risk of suicide is doubled. As Veterans come home from Iraq and Afghanistan, it seemed to me that the VA was a good place to pursue my mission of making the world a less painful place, a little bit every day. And to be truthful, when I was in the middle of a job search last year looking for new opportunities, it was the mental health providers at VA who stood out to me as the most compassionate, driven and flat-out competent folk I had the privilege of meeting. It seemed like work worth doing, alongside professionals I could admire.
VA was also the only place I interviewed that embraced my passion for social media as a way to connect providers and patients. At this time, most mental health providers I know are avoiding Facebook, blogging and Twitter. At VA, everyone I spoke with understood the value of connecting providers, patients and their health care system using personal technology and “new media.” In mental health care we understand it is the relationship that heals, and I knew that I needed to work in a place that understood the importance of life-long patient relationships. A place that would do anything, even brave the Web 2.0 frontier in health care, to do this.
What was so clear to me, as a provider looking from the outside in, was that VA was innovating, while much of the health care community, especially mental health care, was trying to continue practicing 21st century health care using 20th century models and technology. I knew that this was a place where I could pursue my goals for the innovative use of personal technology to improve mental health. This was where the early adopters were, so this was where I needed to be.
So, of course, I wasn’t *quite* prepared to see VA from the inside. “Welcome to VA” became the standard, playful response as I sought solutions to the dozens of administrative snags a new employee will typically experience here. “Welcome to VA” was code for “See what we mean? This system is frustrating.”
What I have learned in the few weeks I have worked here is that there are two VAs inhabiting parallel universes. There is the VA that I saw from the outside: innovative, resource-rich and driven to provide truly excellent care to the Veterans who have earned it. There is also the VA that others see from the inside: bureaucratic and difficult to navigate.
And then there are the providers. When I started out writing this blog, I hoped to include some stories about the amazing providers with whom I work; I discovered that people are so modest they didn’t even want me to share their stories. These are people who usually come an hour or two early, often stay late and go the extra mile to find a new resource for a Veteran who might otherwise slip through the cracks in this system.
I asked one person, “If you won’t let me write about this story, then how will people know?” He told me, “Ask the Veterans. They know who those providers are. They are the best resource you’ll find on the VA. This is where that social media thing you keep talking about could come into play.”
So, perhaps that is the question I’m asking Veterans today. I’m new here, and I’m willing to learn. What makes a provider at the VA outstanding? How do we build strong connections with you? Connections that might save your life or save the life of a Warrior you care about? There is me, there is you and woven around us there is this “system.” How do we build a bridge over it all and connect?
Welcome to VA.
Dr. April C. Foreman is a Licensed Psychologist, serving Veterans as the Suicide Prevention Coordinator at VA’s Baton Rouge Outpatient Clinic. She has a passion for combining social media and technology with traditional counseling practices to provide state of the art mental healthcare for Veterans.