VA NY Harbor Health Care System
Turning it all around
Thursday, February 13, 2014“I was never homeless, but I was in denial about my substance abuse,” says Army Veteran Conrad Yeates. Mr. Yeates now has a full time job as a Peer Specialist in the Mentorship for Addiction Problems to Enhance Engagement to Treatment (MAP-ENGAGE) program, when he works with high risk chronic substance abusers, many of whom are homeless. “It is a gift to have a job where you can help others, “says Kathlene Tracy, Ph.D., a Clinical Psychologist who leads the program and finds that it brings enormous satisfaction. The third team member, Victor Panza, who retired from the Coast Guard where he served as a Cook and Food Service Officer, has a history of problems with both alcohol and drugs. He proudly spoke of just passing his driver’s test, a step he was trying to achieve in his own recovery – “through helping others you often help yourself”. As a Peer Specialist, he says his greatest satisfaction comes “from helping Veterans who were living on the street get sober, get housing and get their lives together.”
"Basically, we try to establish a system that address someone’s symptoms while giving people roles in which they are valued, they recognize their strengths and they are reinforced for not using substances,” says Dr. Tracy. Dr. Tracy has worked at the VA New York Harbor Healthcare System for the past decade, researching and implementing programs “that make reinforcers compete with someone’s symptoms”, with noteworthy positive outcomes. In addition, she has an academic appointment as Associate Professor at New York University. She has been the recipient of multiple research grants through VISN3’s, Mental Illness, Research, Education and Clinical Center (MIRECC), National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), and National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), to develop new behavioral interventions that allow great flexibility in addressing patients’ needs such as they are in MAP-ENGAGE. Within MAP-ENGAGE, Dr. Tracy and her two team members move to assist where a need emerges, whether at the bedside, in the street or in Grand Central Station, to find a Veteran in distress and convince them to come into the hospital.
Dr. Tracy says that her team is continually on the alert for areas that offer potential for support, whether addressing triggers of PTSD, help in seeking housing, food kitchen, applying for education or job opportunities. Dr. Tracy’s faith in humanity and unlimited capability for recovery is rewarded every time an extremely resistant, non-compliant patient finds a reason for turning his/her life around and eventually phones her to report things are going well. Dr. Tracy has long believed that the role of Peer Specialist as a role model is extraordinarily powerful in recovery. “They see someone doing well, abstinent, housed and they know that person was once themselves and they begin to have hope. Hope is a very powerful thing,” she says.
Mr. Yeates says it took him years before he came to VA for help to confront and manage his substance abuse. Today, he describes the satisfaction he experienced when a fellow Veteran with whom he was working removed himself from “a home environment that was infested with drugs. He moved to a shelter and is now living in a HUD/VASH place.” It’s step by step, a day at a time, explains Mr. Yeates. "I show them my life and where I came from and they know they can do it too."