As director of adult outpatient mental health services at Trinitas Regional Medical Center, Linda Reynolds recognized that veterans weren't routinely accessing mental health counseling for post-traumatic stress or seeking help to address other complicated, potentially life-limiting problems.
Taletha Surujnath, left, an advanced practice nurse and Air Force veteran, and Linda Reynolds, a licensed social worker who directs adult outpatient mental health services for Trinitas Regional Medical Center in Elizabeth, N.J., assist veterans through Project Pride for Veterans. The counseling and case management program is a partnership between the hospital and the Veterans Administration.
She secured short-term grants to start Project Pride for Veterans, a counseling and case management program that launched last November. Operated in partnership with the Elizabeth, N.J., Veterans Administration, the program is run out of a building in Elizabeth that Trinitas shares with the VA. Reynolds, a licensed clinical social worker, and her staff of three printed fliers and passed the word around about the availability of individual, group and family psychiatric services for veterans and their families.
The initial response was underwhelming.
"They can be tough guys to get to know," Reynolds said. "It's hard to get them to talk."
So the project staff, which includes an advanced practice nurse who is an Air Force veteran and a licensed social worker who is an active reservist, tried harder. They got hospital administrators to let them know whenever veterans were treated or admitted to the 556-bed hospital south of Newark, N.J., and they started visiting the patients. They also make periodic visits to jails, offering to speak with inmates who are veterans.
"We don't go in and say, 'I'm the clinician,'" said Reynolds. "We just talk. We thank them for their service. We ask if there is anything we can do."
Participation in Project Pride started to tick up after these efforts. The program has helped about 60 veterans since it began and has a current list of 20 clients who visit the Trinitas clinic for help accessing basic medical care, treatment of PTSD and social assistance, including help in finding housing.
Trinitas also sponsors a related program called New Start, which since February has offered free seminars once or twice each week at a Veterans of Foreign Wars post in nearby Cranford, N.J. Speakers address topics such as stress management, nutrition and substance abuse or may offer advice for living with and managing chronic disease. The seminars, which run through June, are open to veterans and their families.
Reynolds said participants in Project Pride and New Start include recently discharged veterans, and those who were in service during the Korean and Vietnam wars. Some of them had never before been open to behavioral health care or outside help with other life challenges.
"Thirty and 50 years later, PTSD doesn't just go away," she said. "There still is a lot of anger, poor sleep, difficulty in relationships."
Fitting that bill was Richard Corlies, a former Army infantryman who fought in the Central Highlands of South Vietnam during the 1968 Tet Offensive. Long affected by PTSD, Corlies, 70, was homeless and a substance abuser three years ago. He finally sought treatment and, because the VA uses part of the Trinitas clinic building, he heard about Project Pride.
"They are doing a great job helping me keep going," Corlies said. "Without them, I swear I'd be pushing up flowers."
He said many veterans avoid seeking help because of the military's "macho tradition" and a belief that nobody could help them anyway.
"Only a vet really understands a vet," said Corlies. "We don't want to show weakness. So we bottle it up."
Reynolds said some veterans, such as Corlies, participate in the psychiatric day programs at the clinic and get therapy. But much of Project Pride's efforts become case management — finding out a veteran's individual needs, such as housing, jobs and clothing, and arranging primary care or substance-abuse counseling.
"We want to improve the quality of life for people who put their lives on the line for all of us," Reynolds said. "We may not cure PTSD, but we certainly can make their lives more comfortable."
Reynolds said a big reason why she pushed for Project Pride was to honor her late father, who served as a waist gunner on a B-17 bomber for 37 missions over Europe during World War II. Brave and stoic, he never talked about the war to his children, she said.
The grants from the Healthcare Foundation of New Jersey and the state Department of Health run through June. Reynolds said she is working to extend them or find replacement funding. "We are persistent," she said.
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