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Veterans Studies students at Eastern Kentucky University set sights on careers in mental health and aim to work with veterans

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Corinne Boyer
Dr. Autumn McCane is chief of mental health services at the Lexington VA Health Care System.

In 2010, while Dr. Travis Martin was working on his first graduate degree, he asked his supervisor why there wasn’t a program that focused on veterans studies. So, he started the Veterans Studies program at Eastern Kentucky University.

“The purpose of the program is to prepare students to go out into the world wherever they're at, and make it a little bit better for veterans, whether that's in their professional career, it's in their family, or it's just in their home community and interpersonal interactions,” Martin said. “I think that people who take our courses, and especially those who get our credentials, are going to be better prepared to do that.”

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Corinne Boyer
Dr. Travis Martin served in the U.S. Army from 2002-2006 and started the Veterans Studies program at Eastern Kentucky University in 2010.

The program isn’t strictly for veterans. Some students, who aren’t veterans, aim to work within some discipline of mental health. Through a mentorship with the Lexington VA, students have learned more about those focus areas after being paired with Dr. Autumn McCane, chief of mental health services.

“Part of how I mentor is talking a little bit about my journey, and helping to figure out what their journey looks like, you know, what are their strengths? What are their weaknesses? Where do they see themselves in five or 10 years, but really making that personal connection,” McCane said.

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the demand for therapists and other mental health professionals has remained high.

Samuel Lewis first became interested in working with veterans when he took his first psychology class. A podcaster for 10 years, he created the Service to Service podcast that he hosts and writes.

Samuel: “You talked a little bit about it as being part of therapy and everything. Was that the only thing that got you there or was there any other organic paths that suddenly went...photography?”

Tif Holmes: “I just started making these little composite images with layered photographs and creating these little scenes, fake scenes, or altered reality scenes, that expressed my experiences. And I did the first one and I was like ah man that felt good.”

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Samuel Lewis
Samuel Lewis is a student at EKU and started the Service to Service podcast.

That’s Lewis interviewing Tif Holmes, a professional photographer and former member of the U.S. Army Reserve Band, about how she picked up photography after she was sexually assaulted in the military.

Dr. McCane said the military has begun to recognize that experience and the term — military sexual assault.

“We're seeing more people in the field of psychology being drawn to want to become experts in that field and provide that specialized therapeutic interventions for what we call MST,” she said.

Lewis said it’s important to talk about the different experiences of veterans.

“It's kind of a person by person by person basis, rather than assuming you see a veteran who's come out of a war, you're going to assume they have PTSD, you're going to assume all of these things. And that's the exact wrong move.”

McCane oversees psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers and nurse practitioners. She said the VA treats various types of trauma — that can include people who’ve experienced combat trauma, PTSD or child abuse.

Amber Woolery is the mother of two and a nontraditional student at Eastern Kentucky University. Through her mentorship with McCane, Woolery has discussed potential paths she can take when she completes her child and family psychology program.

“If I'm not directly working with veterans, I'm working with their families and you know, dealing with deployments or dealing with post deployment,” Woolery said.

Student Kendra Watts is currently earning her master’s in social work. Watts comes from a military family, her dad and grandfather served in the Navy and her friends also serve. She became interested in working in the mental health profession after experiencing a loss.

“I actually lost a very close friend of mine to a mental health issue about a few years ago. And that kind of really, really set me on the path … like, oh, man, this is an issue and not many people really pay attention to it,” Watts said.

In November, the White House released a plan to prevent suicide among veterans. More than 6,000 veterans died by suicide in 2019. Dr. McCane said the VA has specialized sucide prevention efforts.

David Tussey is a retired officer from the U.S. Navy. He was a Navy pilot and served for 20 years mostly during the Cold War. Tussey said mental health issues were a stigma. He dealt with depression towards the end of his career and sought help discreetly. When he needed additional security clearance, he learned what his psychologist told investigators.

“He told them that, unfortunately, all the records that he had meeting with Commander Tussey, had subsequently been destroyed,” Tussey said. “That was the environment we had to work in for receiving mental treatment, people did it, they knew it was important, but they had to take these kind of clandestine efforts to not let that information surfaced as part of their official medical record.”

Knowing that students in the veterans studies program are interested in working within areas of mental health is exciting, Tussey said. He’s supportive of the veterans studies program and of openly dealing with issues surrounding mental health.

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