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Pandemic creates challenges for veterans dealing with mental health issues | State of Dis•Ease

COVID-19 has created special challenges for those who work to maintain the mental health of veterans.

SWANTON, Ohio — The past 13 months have been hard on everyone.

Our lives, our jobs, our families; all in distress from the pandemic.

That disruption affected the lives of military veterans, no less than anyone else.

The VA in Toledo also saw the pandemic as trouble from a mental health perspective.

Issues of depression, anxiety, and isolation experienced by veterans who have gone through combat, lost the camaraderie they found in the military and had to deal with separation from civilian life have all been magnified by the pandemic.

Calls to the suicide prevention hotline in the Toledo-Ann Arbor region spiked last summer.

There were over a hundred calls a month to the hotline.

“Veterans have complex issues right? Complex medical and mental health the general public does have that, but especially with veterans we see a multitude of issues,” said VA clinical social worker Jill Harrison.

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To deal with increased stressors in a time when limiting in-office visits became necessary, the VA also turned to virtual telehealth. 

They even provided veterans with computers, and pinpointing “at risk” veterans to make sure they got enhanced mental health care.

It hasn't been easy.

“It’s not a quick fix. The pandemic has been raging for months and months and months and all of us are in the spot of dealing with our own lives with that and doing whatever else we need to do,” said VA clinical social worker Patrick Codden.

Other area veterans programs have helped pick up the slack too.

“When I first came to H.O.O.V.E.S., I lived inside a bottle. I was suicidal,” said Tim Sixberry, a 31-year veteran.

The non-profit H.O.O.V.E.S., in Swanton, partners veterans and others with rescue horses to help them heal and grow. It's a program that’s helped 350 people in the last ten years.

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What is special about H.O.O.V.E.S.? Horses have the instinct to mirror our behavior. If you’re not engaged. If you’re hostile. Stubborn. The horse gives it right back.

Symbolism? Leading a horse is like life. You roll the dice, and jump through hoops every day. Obstacles.

Amanda Held runs the program.

A veteran herself, Held says she doesn’t heal people. The program helps veterans heal themselves.

“We give them a set of exercises to do and tasks to accomplish with the horse. As the horses begin to reflect their behavior they can make real time changes and expand their awareness. As soon as they shift the horse shifts,” said Held.

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Even during the pandemic, H.O.O.V.E.S. stayed in operation. They had six retreats and they had 45 different military, their families, and first responders out as part of the program.

Tim came to H.O.O.V.E.S. last year, and it helped turn his life around.

“H.O.O.V.E.S. has given me my purpose, has redirected my thought patterns,” said Tim. “At the present time, I don’t jump into a bottle at the first sign of any type of conflict or anything that comes against me. I start looking inward and working with those tools H.O.O.V.E.S. has given me.”

Tim has now become a mentor, helping other veterans find their way back even as the circumstances in the world make it that much more difficult.