(L-R) Rev. Sean Gardner; Chief of Chaplaincy, VANYHHS, Father Andrew Sioleti; Rev. Renee Gardner; Dr. Arthur Russo, Clinical Psychologist; VANYHHS, Rev. Charles Hall, VANYHHS, Brooklyn Campus
Tuesday, July 24, 2012
Under the direction of Chief Chaplain Andrew Sioleti, VA New York Harbor Healthcare System's (VA NYHHS) Chaplaincy has been in the forefront of VA programs that integrate spirituality and mental health. “In the past two years, chaplaincy has made ever increasing efforts to reach out to the community, and to create partnerships with community religious leaders," noted Harbor psychologist Arthur Russo. "It’s all part of the Harbor’s effort to care for the spiritual and mental health needs not only of our Veterans, but their spouses, children and extended family members.”
Chaplaincy’s most recent outreach and education event was held May 30th at the Memorial Baptist Church, following the invitation of senior pastor, Rev. Renee Washington Gardner. As a Marine wife and mother of two Veterans, Rev. Gardner knows all too well the impact the military and deployments can have on the family. She is also a student in VA's Clinical Pastoral Education Program.
At that event, Chaplains Sioleti, Hall and Dr. Russo offered an overview of what VA NYHHS offers the Veteran family, as well as the specific spiritual and mental health issues Veteran families’ face. “We have something of a unique pastoral team of chaplains and psychologists here at the Harbor,” said Dr. Russo. “So we’re able to provide support and education to our community religious leaders about a range of Veteran issues, and, we’re available to guide these religious leaders in becoming specifically alert to the symptoms of mental health issues in Veterans. At the same time, Chaplaincy can offer Veterans a friendly portal to VA services.”
He noted that many veteran families are more comfortable when their first contact is with the clergy, rather than a mental health practitioner, especially when they’ve been active within their own community faith group.
At the outreach event, Dr. Russo discussed two issues that demanded both clinical and spiritual expertise, giving examples on both ends of the age span. “With our older Veterans, issues of growing frailty, cognitive impairment and the impact this has on their adult children are common. Take the Veteran suffering from dementia - the family wants to know what’s going on from a clinical point of view, but there’s often an overlap with the spiritual. For example, ‘why would God let this happen?’”
“With our combat Veterans, issues of moral injury are being increasingly recognized as something we have to deal with, and we are finding that our joint chaplain and mental health care teams are in an excellent position to address the overlapping spiritual and mental health issues, for example, in problem areas like post traumatic stress disorder,” Dr. Russo said.
As Harbor Chaplaincy continues to change to meet the changing needs of area Veterans, the health of the Veterans’ families is also being addressed. Approximately 70 percent of our returning combat Veterans report marital problems. Dr. Russo stated, “In order to strengthen family ties, VA NYHHS Chaplaincy recently trained 30 instructors to provide PAIRS Essentials, an experiential couple’s education program. In addition to our regular retreats, our pastoral care teams will soon be offering this as yet another way of addressing the spiritual and mental health issues of our Veteran families.”
In speaking of Chaplaincy’s multi-disciplinary care teams, Dr. Russo said, “It’s an exciting partnership and administrative support has been wonderful. We’re all very grateful to be working together as part of this integration.”