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Carter Center Experience Sparks Ferro's Passion for Veterans and Mental Health
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Carter Center Experience Sparks Ferro's Passion for Veterans and Mental Health

By Tom J. Ferro, LCPC
AMHCA President, 2010–2011

While I have attended more than a few workshops and conferences in my 25 years as a mental health counselor in private practice, never have I attended a symposium as moving and inspiring as the 26th Annual Rosalynn Carter Symposium on Mental Health Policy

I had the honor and privilege of attending the Carter Institute symposium in November as the president of AMHCA in early November. The symposium was on “A Veteran’s Journey Home: Reintegrating our National Guard and Reservists into Family, Community and the Workplace.” Symposium attendance is by invitation only from Former First Lady Rosalynn Carter, and the 2010 invitation reflects AMHCA’s long-standing relationship with Mrs. Carter and the Carter Center. 

From the opening remarks of Rosalynn Carter to her final concluding remarks, I was awestruck by this gentle, soft-spoken, never-tiring, fierce advocate of mental health and former First Lady. 

Not only was Mrs. Carter present for every speaker, she made a point of being very available during breaks and the receptions before the evening dinner put on by the Carter Center. I felt fortunate to shake her hand and to talk to her about AMHCA and our appreciation for all she is doing in the field of mental health as well as her continued fight for mental health access for all people. An important part of her work is her fight for an end to the stigma of mental illness.

The day-and-a-half symposium was packed with speakers and breakout sessions. The breakout sessions were solution-oriented brainstorming sessions. Each of us was asked to make a commitment to take back to our organization one solution to one of the identified problems. There were four areas of concern: education, criminal justice, rural issues, and research. I chose rural issues because of AMHCA’s efforts to provide more mental health access in rural America. The issue is important to me personally since I live in work in Montana, a largely rural state, and our state chapter, the Montana Licensed Clinical Professional Counselors Association (MLCPCA) has also worked persistently on this issue.

The consensus of the rural committee was that a lot of services are available to our servicemen and servicewomen, but that we haven’t done a good enough job getting that information out to everyone—including mental health counselors. I committed to putting more links on the AMHCA website that might help mental health counselors find more help for their veteran clients. 

Many impressive speakers at the symposium besides Mrs. Carter conveyed their commitment for mental health and especially the mental health of our veterans. Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D–R.I.) has a passion for this issue like no other I have ever heard before. His life’s mission is to erase the stigma of mental illness! Some of the things he said will be embedded in my mind forever. I’m paraphrasing some of them here: 

  • “The war isn’t over when the troops come home.”
  • “Don’t leave our soldiers behind, prisoners of war—held hostage to depression, addictions, and traumatic brain injury.”
  • “Bring home our troops, both body and mind.”
  • “This is the anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s go-to-the-Moon speech; we need a new mission, a mission to explore the brain. We need to find cures to diseases of the brain, Alzheimer’s, autism, Parkinson’s, addictions, all mental illnesses!”
  • “We need to knock down the doors to find money—new money, from the DOD, private sector, VA, the Defense Fund. We need to set up a new fund and call it Moonshot to the brain. Our Sputnik is suicide.”
  • “We need to break down the barriers and drink from the same water fountain! Right now we have a separate water fountain and it’s called mental health!”
  • “Our veterans can be our heroes again, by bringing mental health to the forefront and forcing us to put an end to mental illness once and for all!”

Attending the symposium also renewed my hope in the private sector—such as big companies like Lockheed Martin and JPMorgan Chase—which is developing special health and wellness divisions just to help hire and reintroduce veterans back in the workforce. I saw the Veterans Affairs leaders at the symposium trying to find new ways to reach veterans. 

We listened to psychiatrist Jay Shore, MD, who heads the Center for American Indians and Alaska Native Health, at the University of Colorado–Denver. Shore spoke on his work with the Native population and how he is using technology to reach Native Americans in rural and reservation areas. He runs groups through Internet websites and has great success treating people who may never have had a chance to see a psychiatrist because of the distance and cultural barriers. 

Then there is clinical psychologist Barbara Van Dahlen, PhD, president and founder of Give an Hour. Van Dahlen is a great example of the big difference one person can make. She told symposium attendees of a memorable walk down the street with her 9-year-old daughter. When they passed a homeless veteran holding a sign asking for help, her daughter stopped and asked her mom, “How can we let this happen? We have to do something, Mom!” 

That moment so affected Van Dahlen that she started asking mental health professionals to give just one hour a week of therapy to a vet or a family member of a veteran. Since then the organization has grown a network of more than 5,000 providers, who have collectively given roughly $3 million worth of services. To spread the word about the Give an Hour program, AMHCA has a link to the program on our website; click on “Member Benefits,” and then “Practice Resources.” Van Dahlen’s is a great story of the compassion of a child and the mother who listened!

As everyone at the symposium agreed, we have come a long way in our challenge to treat mental illness and to reach out to our veterans, but we have a long way to go. We have to fight harder than ever to meet the mental health crisis we have in our country and in our military. 

We at AMHCA hope that we can continue to do our part to help you fight for the rights of your clients and all people for access to quality mental health.

Thank you for your time in reading my articles and thank you for being a member of AMHCA and for all the work you do to help others.