Milwaukee VA Medical Center
African-American vets face additional challenges
African-American Veterans often struggle with the same problems and concerns as others, but they also face unique issues based on race, prejudice and historical mistrust.
To address those concerns, and what VA can do to help, African-American Veterans will be the focus of the sixth annual VA Mental Health Summit, presented by the Milwaukee VA Medical Center in partnership with University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s Military and Veterans Resource Center.
"It's important that this mental health summit specifically reach out to African-American Veterans because of the history that African-American veterans have had with VA,” said Dr. Keisha Battle, a mental health integration psychologist at the Milwaukee VA.
This year’s event, “Freedom Dreams: Pulling from the Past to Change the Future,” will be held Saturday, June 23, at the UW-Milwaukee Student Union.
The Mental Health Summit will include workshops, guest speakers, breakout sessions and panel discussions that focus on the wide array of care the Milwaukee VA offers.
Being an African-American woman is an asset in dealing with Veterans, and often helps allay their concerns and put them more at ease, said Battle, coordinator for the Mental Health Summit.
"I think people are very much surprised when they walk into VA and see the diversity and the staff and the different providers,” Battle said. “I personally have heard Veterans tell me when they sit across from me, 'Hey, I didn't know you were here.' And, when I hear that, I know what that means. I can read between those lines, 'I didn't know that there was an African-American female mental health provider here.'"
Dr. Michael McBride, a Milwaukee VA psychiatrist, brings a unique perspective to the Mental Health Summit committee. He is both an Army and Navy Veteran who has been deployed five times, including twice to Iraq and once to Afghanistan.
“As a Veteran, we care about each other. We cannot leave a fallen comrade,” he said. “So, we’re always looking for those other service members, those Veterans out in the community, that are not linked in to VA care. And, we know by the data that Veterans who are not coming to VA care are at a higher risk for mental health problems, including suicide.
“The reason we have chosen to focus on the African-American community is that historically there has been troubles with communicating our message to that community as far as what we can provide, as far as services that they can trust, and to make sure that those Veterans are getting the care they need,” McBride said.
Community partnerships allow VA to reach a larger, targeted audience.
"Partnering with UW, it's a huge organization here in Milwaukee,” Battle said. “It's an organization that can help us, the VA, get the word out about the different services that are offered here. I greatly appreciate UW being willing to partner with VA. I think those two forces together can really spread the message and outreach into the community."
Dialogue is an important part of addressing Veterans issues in general, as well as those of specific communities, and the corresponding health care needs.
“In our community, there are racial problems, we know that,” McBride said. “In our VA, being as diverse as we are, we are addressing these problems head on. Last year’s summit addressed the need of the LGBTQ community. That was significant. This year we want to address the needs of the African-American community. We want to have those conversations. We need to continue to improve the quality of care and address those racial differences that do exist in health care. At this VA, we’re doing that.”
Changing institutional stereotypes is as important as confronting personal stereotypes, and that also is part of the goal of the Mental Health Summit.
"My message to any Veteran, any African-American Veteran, or Veteran of color that may be apprehensive about coming to the VA because of prior experiences with the VA, or even just the social atmosphere of what's going on in the world today, my message would be, 'Give us a chance.’” Battle said. “Give us a chance to support you, give us a chance to listen to what's going on. This is your VA."