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Veterans Health Administration

Classes help Veterans with Mental Illness

man painting a wall

Veteran David Fish uses his artistic skills as part of his recovery.

Psychosocial Rehabilitation and Recovery Center

For a Veteran with serious mental illness, the idea of living a more fulfilling life and developing their full potential can sometimes seem insurmountable.

There is an exceptional program in the VA that is making it possible.

It’s called the Psychosocial Rehabilitation and Recovery Center (PRRC).

Veterans in the program, like the one at the San Francisco VA Medical Center, can choose from a wide variety of activities on their way to attaining a meaningful self-determined role in the community.

“I was surprised to find out these activities were here and I have great expectations for learning how to reestablish hope for the future. I just hope some of the younger soldiers coming home today don’t wait as long as I did.”

— Veteran David Fish

Woman’s portrait

Dr. Jennifer Boyd

Dr. Jennifer E. Boyd, who runs the San Francisco program, says the Veterans can select from dozens of activities that help them with social skills, self-expression, coping with symptoms, and striving for personal goals. In addition to offering classes, the program also pairs Veterans with staff Recovery Advisors who help them define and strive towards their personal goals. The interdisciplinary staff includes psychology, social work, nursing, occupational therapy, recreation/creative arts therapy, peer support, trainees, and volunteers. Many of the staff are board certified in Psychiatric Rehabilitation.

The wide range of activities in the program’s catalog are aimed at promoting community integration through effective symptom management and skill building.

For example, “Brainstorm” is a class that introduces Veterans to ways to boost their brain power. The “Dual Recovery” class focuses on alcohol and substance abuse recovery as it relates to mental health recovery. Uniquely, this class is facilitated by a staff member who has a dual diagnosis and is in recovery.

There are dozens more, like “Eating Right,” “Ending Self Stigma,” “Coping with Voices,” “Stress Management,” “Family Support,” “Women’s Group,” “Independent Living Skills,” and “Problem Solving.” There is also a “Student Council” which provides feedback to staff about the program.

There’s even a class called “Write Now,” where the Veteran students collaborate and enjoy a variety of recovery-oriented writing skills exercises including journaling, expressive writing, poetry, prose and more.

Classes Available at Multiple Locations

In addition to classes at the San Francisco Medical Center, the program is also available to Vets at clinics in downtown San Francisco, San Bruno and Santa Rosa.

Dr. Boyd is also enthusiastic about the introduction of teleconference classes which allows Veterans as far away and Ukiah and Eureka in northern California to participate.

One of the most popular courses is the “Veteran’s Art Guild,” where Veterans work on their self-determined art projects. In addition to improving physical stamina and manual dexterity, the class allows the Vets to visualize their recovery goals through their chosen means of artistic expression. The Guild is a bridge to the community because it has had numerous well received art shows and is working on becoming independent from the VA.

For David Fish, an Army Desert Storm Veteran, the program “has changed my life.”

A medic and paratrooper for eight years, David receives VA treatment for PTSD and major depression.

When not on duty as a nurse, David doodled around, drawing cartoons on his buddies’ t-shirts. Some of his work caught the eye of the editor of an Army newspaper who asked him to draw a comic strip for the paper. His work was good enough to be entered in a “morale boosting” competition which he won with an eight panel cartoon featuring two “desert rats.”

After a couple of decades struggling with his PTSD back home, David was finally convinced by family to seek help at the VA.

“When I came to the VA, I immediately identified with all the Veterans. I had to admit that I missed the Army. After all, it was my adult life. I had a hard time learning how to be a civilian.

“Dr. Boyd got me involved in the program. She has been fantastic.”

Today, David is using his drawing and writing skills as part of his recovery in the Psychosocial Rehabilitation and Recovery program. In addition to the mural on the medical center wall, pictured here, he participates with the Veterans Art Guild, writing interpretive descriptions of creative dances.

He’s also working on a book about his experiences in the Army.

“I was surprised to find out these activities were here and I have great expectations for learning how to reestablish hope for the future. I just hope some of the younger soldiers coming home today don’t wait as long as I did.”

At each of the major VA Medical Centers, the Psychosocial Rehabilitation and Recovery Center (PRRC) is a transitional education center designed to inspire and assist Veterans in reclaiming their lives by instilling hope and validating their strengths.

The program was started at the San Francisco VAMC in 2008 and has grown rapidly from an initial enrollment of 110 to a projected attendance of 1,086 in 2011. Currently, there are 175 Veterans in the San Francisco program.

More than 1500 Vets have Completed Courses

Dr. Boyd points out that more than 1500 Veterans have “completed” courses in the program, careful not to call them “graduates.” “We focus on the Vets achieving their own personal goals, getting whatever they want, and need, out of the classes. The classes are completely voluntary.”

“The Vets in our classes are about evenly split between Viet Nam era Vets and those from more recent eras such as Desert Storm, Iraq and Afghanistan.”

The Psychosocial Rehabilitation and Recovery program is an adjunct program that is available to Veterans who have a severe mental illness such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and associated impairment, and are followed in a Mental Health clinic by a principal mental health provider.

Dr. Boyd says, “It is a privilege to work with world-class colleagues offering the latest evidence-based practices. It’s wonderful to see Veterans change from being dominated by their illnesses to having a more full life with the illness only one aspect of it. Even if symptoms return, they may be less severe, shorter-lasting, or have less of an impact on other areas of life.

Veterans who have participated in the program may be less affected by internalized stigma of mental illness as well. We are just beginning to collect data on our program’s recovery outcomes.”

Dr. Jennifer Boyd is Associate Adjunct Professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco. As Director of the Pyschosocial Rehabilitation and Recovery Center at the San Francisco VA, she oversees a program of twelve staff members plus students and volunteers.

An oft-invited speaker on mental illness and stigma, including a presentation at the Moscow State University Psychology Department, and VA Psychosocial Rehabilitation and Recovery Centers Annual Meetings, Dr. Boyd received the American Psychological Association 2009 Award for Outstanding Contributions in Psychosocial Rehabilitation.

“My focus is primarily on reducing stigma for people with mental illnesses, and secondarily on improving cross-cultural and interdisciplinary interactions.

“I am an active member of “Stamp Out Stigma,” an organization that provides people with mental illness to speak at a variety of venues, including elementary schools, high schools, colleges, professional schools, police academies, suicide hotline training centers, international conferences, professional workshops, and government committees.”

In clinical, research, and community work, Dr. Boyd and her co-workers try to include stakeholders with mental illness in the operating and decision making processes, following the motto, “Nothing About Us Without Us.”

Related link:
  VA Mental Health