Michelle Watts comes from a military family and works at the VA, so she is attuned to some of the issues that may be keeping African-American veterans from seeking out services.
“Misinformation and a history of mistrust” are factors, said Watts, veterans justice outreach coordinator for Milwaukee’s Clement J. Zablocki Veterans Affairs Medical Center.
The VA Center, in collaboration with the Military and Veterans Resource Center at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, is reaching out to African-American veterans to provide information about the services available to them.
The sixth annual VA Mental Health Summit, set for Saturday, June 23, at UWM, will focus on African-American veterans.
“Part of our mandate is to make sure that all of the veterans in our community know all of the services that are available and what the VA has to offer,” said William Johnson, minority veterans program coordinator at the VA Center. “Any veteran is welcome,” he added, “but we are trying to reach out particularly to historically underrepresented groups.”
The summit will run from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the UWM Student Union, 2200 E. Kenwood Blvd.
Guest speakers include: Delphine Metcalf Foster, the first woman and first African-American to serve as national commander for the Disabled American Veterans, and Reggie Jackson, head griot (docent) for America’s Black Holocaust Museum.
Breakout sessions will focus on eligibility for VA health care and benefits, racial trauma and inequality, chronic pain management, Afro-centered approaches to healing, disparities in African-American health care and gun violence as a public health issue.
The summit is part of efforts to reach out to specific groups of veterans to let them know what services are available to them, Johnson said. Previous summits have focused on Afghan-Iraqi war veterans, as well as veterans who are female, disabled and LGBT. Plans are to focus on Latino veterans next year, Johnson said.
UWM’s MAVRC center has been partnering with the VA on a number of projects over the past few years, said Jayne Holland, interim director. The VA’s mobile vet center visits the campus regularly, and many UWM graduates have gone on to jobs at the VA. “They’re just an outstanding community partner,” said Holland.
This year’s program was developed with input from questionnaires sent to church, community and mental health organizations and focus groups, according to Johnson. He estimates that there are approximately 11,500 African-American veterans in the five-county Milwaukee metropolitan area. However, because the VA does not track patients by race, it’s difficult to know whether all those who are eligible know what services are available to them.
Many veterans return home from the service and thrive in their lives, said Johnson, but some may need help with medical, mental health, substance abuse or housing, and the VA can provide that, he added. Last year, in addition to providing medical services, the VA found housing for 300 veterans and graduated another 300 from substance abuse recovery programs.
“We work to help veterans who are at risk of losing housing or unstably housed or actually homeless, said Watts.
In addition, her office works with veterans who are involved with the justice system. “We know in communities of color, the incarceration rates are higher than they would be for the general population,” she added. “This is particularly critical for African-American males, who have had historically higher rates of incarceration.”
Many African-American veterans have traditionally relied on family and church for mental health support, feeling there was a stigma attached to seeking counseling through organizations such as the VA, but that is one of the reasons the VA is reaching out, according to Watts and Johnson.
“We are hoping with the summit that we can improve or increase their knowledge. We want to make sure they are aware of the benefits they’ve earned and the care they deserve,” said Watts.