Partnerships: Meeting the Behavioral Health Needs of Veterans and Their Families

Despite the plethora of resources available for veterans and military families in New York City and all around the country, there remain significant challenges in meeting their needs for well-being. Veterans and their family members, when in need, often face a multitude of challenges. The VA alone cannot meet the demands for care, which is why the VA has developed strategic partnerships with community providers to extend their reach of services, including for behavioral health. More than 40,000 nonprofit organizations provide services exclusively to veterans and their families, thousands more have programming for veterans amongst other populations they serve. Yet, most organizations do not deliver a comprehensive range of supports to meet veterans’ complex and overlapping needs. Additionally, veterans often note that navigating the abundance of benefits and services available to them is a major transition challenge.

Given the amount, and yet fragmentation, of supports across various sectors, a number of communities across the country are bringing together the public and private sectors to effectively coordinate resources. Noteworthy is AmericaServes, an initiative to coordinate public, private, and nonprofit organizations so that veterans, service members, and their families can easily access a full range of comprehensive services. AmericaServes has developed community networks across the nation, first launching NYServes in New York City, to connect resources in a meaningful and efficient way.

The VA has also recognized that effectively serving veterans requires collaboration and partnerships with community providers in order to better reach and provide care for veterans and their families. Downstate New York has been at the forefront of developing these types of partnerships. Among them are the North-Shore LIJ partnership with the Northport Veterans Affairs Medical Center (VAMC) to create the Unified Behavioral Health Center for Military Veterans and Their Families, the NYU Langone Medical Center partnership with VA New York Harbor Health care System (VA NYHHS) to establish the Cohen Military Family Clinic and NAMI-NYC Metro’s partnerships with the Manhattan and Bronx VAs to support veteran family members. These partnerships and others like them offer tangible examples of how organizations can collaborate to improve access to care for veterans and their families.

To help further build on these local community partnerships that exist, the Veterans Mental Health Coalition of New York City (VMHC) and the New York State Health Foundation (NYSHF) co-sponsored an event entitled “Partnerships: Meeting the Behavioral Health Needs of Veterans and Their Families,” in order to highlight the value of organizational partnerships, and other forms of collaborative relationships, to better serve veterans and their families. Speakers at the event included expert service providers from diverse community based organizations, such as The Bridge, The Headstrong Project, The Steven A. Cohen Military Family Clinic at NYU Langone Medical Center, as well as representatives from state and local government, including the New York State Division of Veterans’ Affairs and the New York City Department of Veterans’ Services . Each organization provides a unique set of services to veterans, and all rely on partnerships to achieve their goals of helping veterans live full, productive lives in the community. A number of common themes emerged during the discussion that can aid organizations to develop meaningful collaborative relationships.

Focus On the Most Important Partner, the Veteran In Front of You

“The most important partner is the veteran sitting across from you,” and the partnerships you make with individual veterans will help determine what outside partnerships might be of benefit for your organizations according to Kevin Fisher, Director of Veterans Programs for The Bridge. He identified five key principles that organizations should use to establish and maintain partnerships, including: 1) have an outreach plan to identify potential partners in the community; 2) be clear about why you want to partner with a particular organization; 3) build relationships not only with organizations, but with the individual people who work within them; 4) understand that partnerships are not a “zero sum game,” as there is plenty of work to go around; and 5) accept that partnerships may vary in duration, with some existing for a short term, while others may become long standing relationships.

No Single Organization Can Meet All the Veteran’s Needs

Partnerships are a crucial tool for organizations to use to ensure that veterans’ needs are met, as no one organization will likely be able to provide all of the services needed for every veteran, according to Gerard Ilaria, Clinical Director of The Headstrong Project, that provides tailored mental health trauma treatment for post-9/11 veterans. “Even the VA,” he noted, “will partner with outside organizations like us when it can’t meet the needs of all veterans” due to the high population density of veterans in some geographic areas, such as New York City or San Diego. In his case, Mr. Ilaria stated, The Headstrong Project partners with vetted collaborating clinicians for trauma treatment services, as well as providers of physical fitness and employment services, to promote emotional stabilization and reintegration of veterans into the community.

The New York City Department of Veterans’ Services (DVS) sees the development of strategic public-private partnerships as central to its mission of ensuring high quality service for the more than 200,000 veterans in New York City. Jason Mangone, Director of Senior Advisor, Public-Private Partnerships & Development at NYC DVS, noted that these types of partnerships are essential for government agencies in order to “flexibly deploy dollars” to address gaps in service needs, as well as to better innovate to “tackle problems that exceed the scope of any one organization.”

Not All Partnerships Need To Be Formal

“Not all partnerships need to be formal contractual agreements,” but may simply be a well established network of providers who know each other well enough to be able to provide appropriate referrals between themselves to meet the needs of veterans and their families according to Dr. Amanda Spray, Assistant Director of The Steven A. Cohen Military Family Clinic, a leading provider of behavioral health services to veterans and their families. She did indicate, however, that organizations that need to be able to share patient/client data should develop a formal partnership so that they are able to do so in accordance with HIPAA.

Don’t View Prospective Partners as Sources of Funding

While the guidelines above for thinking about and establishing partnerships are in many ways straightforward, all of the experts assembled agreed that there are some key things that organizations should not do when they are looking to establish inter-organizational partnerships. Chief among these “what not to do” tips is to approach a potential partner with a request for funding for your own organization. Most organizations serving veterans rely on grant funding or other revenue sources, and typically do not have funds available to distribute outside of their own programs. Rather than making a direct request for funding, it is important to look for additional ways that resources can be leveraged to meet a particular service need.

Obtain Military Cultural Competence

In addition, if your organization is seeking to expand its service portfolio to include veterans and/or their families, do not assume that because of your success with other populations, you automatically have the necessary knowledge and skills that you will need to do so. Your organization must be able to demonstrate its military cultural competence in order to gain the trust from veterans, their families, and the organizations that serve them before a solid partnership can be established. At the same time, it is also useful for veteran focused organizations to reach out beyond their established networks as needed in order to ensure an adequate array of providers are available to support your plans for expansion and meet the needs veterans and their families.

Veterans are and will continue to return home to New York City after their service; many are new transplants to our city that have never lived here before, while others have reintegrated years ago. Like so many other newcomers who arrive in New York City, veterans come here with aspirations of fulfilling their dreams, and some will need support in order to achieve their goals. All of us who care about the wellbeing of veterans and their family members can help, but none of us can achieve it on our own. In order to provide veterans and their families with a quality of life that matched their service, we need to foster good strategic partnerships with fellow providers in our community.

To identify and learn more about developing partnerships, join the Veterans Mental Health Coalition of New York City. Contact Joseph Hunt, Director, at jhunt@mhaofnyc.org.

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