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Mental Health Care Inspires Veterans To Embrace New Passions

5-minute read

Mental Health Care Inspires Veterans To Embrace New Passions

5-minute read

Read Stories > Mental Health Care Inspires Veterans To Embrace New Passions

For Mental Health Month in May 2024, VA is featuring the stories of Veterans who share how mental health treatment helped them change the trajectories of their lives—how they are feeling more present, balanced, connected, and motivated and how they are recovering, healing, thriving, and otherwise living fuller lives. 

For many Veterans, these gains come not only through treatment but also through the doors that mental health care can open to self-help activities that support recovery—like Shannon swimming in cold ocean water, Dennis practicing and teaching martial arts, Courtney singing karaoke, and Michael writing poetry and managing the wildlife habitat outside his home. Every Veteran follows their own unique path, but all paths can lead to healing.

Shannon: Living in the present through therapy and open water swimming 

Drinking alcohol used to be Shannon’s primary coping mechanism.  

At first, he drank to cope with the grief of his mother’s death from brain cancer right before he deployed to Herat, Afghanistan. Then he drank while on deployment as a U.S. Army counterintelligence agent to quiet his “impending fear of things worse than death.” His drinking continued in response to other stressful situations and losses. It didn’t stop until someone close to him pressed him to address his drinking and mental health challenges. 

Shannon responded by going to Vet Centers, where he was diagnosed with and treated for posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), panic disorder, and acute alcoholism. He found group therapy especially helpful. “There’s a shared experience,” Shannon explains. “I know they’ve been where I’ve been.” 

“I ended up finding a group that I really liked and then I got introduced to other activities, and that’s when I was introduced to open water swimming,” Shannon says. 

Open water swimming takes place in outdoor bodies of water such as oceans, lakes, and rivers. For Shannon, the activity proved life-changing—as a shared experience with other Veterans and as self-therapy. “When I’m in cold water, I’m in the present,” he says. “I don’t brood on the past and I don’t sit there and try to negotiate a future I don’t know about. I’m right there where I’m supposed to be.” 

Dennis: Healing through treatment and taekwondo

After completing his 4 years of service as an Army infantryman in 2005—including extended deployments and feeling on edge in combat zones—Dennis faced challenges adjusting his behavior to fit civilian life. He felt combative and aggressive, always seeking conflict.  

“You’re kind of always feeling like you’re in a combat zone,” Dennis says. “Just being able to turn that off right away is a challenge. And knowing that you have to turn it off, knowing that it’s not normal to stay in that state—learning that is also a challenge.”

Dennis says treatments such as cognitive behavioral therapy and group counseling helped him understand what PTSD is, recognize that he had the symptoms, and learn how to manage his reactions when his emotions are heightened.  

His involvement in taekwondo also is a great help. Dennis and his brother had always stayed involved in the Korean martial art and decided to open their own taekwondo studio. Staying active helps Dennis release stress and anxiety, and he sees a strong tie between the principles he applies in taekwondo and his mental health care.

“Taekwondo instills a lot of discipline … a lot of accountability for yourself,” he explains. “I think a lot of that translates really right on over to working on your mental health. It’s something that you need to work on constantly. So being able to train in taekwondo and continue to train on your mental health is almost symbiotic.” 

Courtney: Thriving after mental health care and karaoke lifted her spirits

Courtney had nearly lost everything by the time she turned to VA for help. After serving in the U.S. Army from 2000 to 2010, she found the transition to civilian life extremely difficult, lost her house and car, became homeless with 3 children, and felt suicidal. 

When Courtney sought help, VA enrolled her in the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development-VA Supportive Housing program. The program pairs rental assistance with VA case management and services for homeless Veterans, including health care and mental health treatment. Courtney’s mental health care from VA—one-on-one counseling, group therapy, and medication—helped her manage her challenges, including effects from the military sexual trauma she had blocked from her memory. 

She also found emotional release and uplift through karaoke. “I would scream and yell, and I would just act a fool on the stage. And that was my way of expressing myself. … I wasn’t holding anything in,” she explains. Her singing even improved to the point where she performed the national anthem at events, sang with the U.S. Army Band, and accepted paid gigs.  

“I kind of became a professional singer,” she says with a chuckle. But Courtney says she feels happiest when helping other Veterans as CEO of OneVet OneVoice and as a volunteer. “I don’t want Veterans to go through a lot of the things that I went through—lack of resources and not knowing what to do,” she says. 

Michael: Finding balance through therapy and nature 

Michael was 18 years old when he left the life he knew and was sent to Vietnam, where he began a 10-year career in the U.S. Navy assigned to the Marines. 

He came back home to people who looked down on Veterans who served in Vietnam. He withdrew from social situations, which he says ruined his relationships, and experienced depression. In ensuing years, traumatic events in his life or in the country would bring back some of those negative memories and feelings. 

During his treatment with VA, where he was diagnosed with PTSD, Michael found that medications and one-on-one therapy worked best for him. He says therapy helped him “to know myself better than I ever had in the past,” and he still checks in with his therapist every few months to stay on track. 

Michael found many other positive outlets too. He writes poetry and fiction. He returned to college for what he calls his “retirement degree,” studying what he wants rather than for a job. He has a wildlife habitat with all sorts of animals coming through. “It calms me down a great deal just to sit out there,” he says. 

“We forget the connection we’re supposed to have with each other and with the earth,” Michael says. “Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but I think there’s a balance that should be held. It opens up something deeper inside a person that you don’t realize is there.”

No matter what you may be experiencing, find support for getting your life on a better track.

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