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Dryhootch offers safe haven for ailing veterans

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Fall/Winter 2013 issue (pdf)

Empowering older individuals to take an active role in their own hypertension care has been the primary research focus of Jeffrey Whittle, MD ’84, a staff physician at the Clement J. Zablocki VA Medical Center in Milwaukee, and Professor of Medicine (General Internal Medicine) at the Medical College of Wisconsin (MCW).

In 2006, Dr. Whittle began investigating how that approach to cardiovascular care could be applied to mental health, particularly in the treatment of combat veterans. He previously had developed partnerships with the Veterans of Foreign Wars, American Legion and Vietnam Veterans of America on projects promoting chronic disease prevention and self-management.

Just a few miles away, Vietnam veteran Robert Curry was beginning to make his dreams of a safe haven for troubled veterans a reality. It would be called Dryhootch of America, a nonprofit organization designed to “help veterans and their families who survived the war, survive the peace.”

“Call it whatever you will – karma or divine intervention – but it was huge that we found each other,” Curry said. “Dr. Whittle came knocking at our door at the same time we were trying to get our legs up. It’s scary being a pioneer, but it’s less of a risk when you have an established institution like the Medical College on your side.”

In 2009, Dryhootch received the first of two Healthier Wisconsin Partnership Program (HWPP) grants from MCW’s Advancing a Healthier Wisconsin endowment. The goal was to help provide community outreach to veterans and their families by establishing a safe, social gathering space and peer support from trained veterans. Dr. Whittle was the primary investigator of the pilot grant and remains a partner on the project today.

“Encouraging patient self-management when it comes to hypertension, obesity and physical fitness is what I do. Why not extend that to mental health?” Dr. Whittle said. “Doctors can tell patients about healthy behaviors, but that’s often not enough. Peers offer valuable advice on how to achieve good health. They can share their success stories and offer encouragement.”

Many veterans suffer from preventable illnesses such as heart disease and certain cancers because of unrelated physical and mental problems that are exacerbated by post-traumatic stress disorder, addictions and unhealthy lifestyles. As part of the first grant, Dryhootch and Dr. Whittle conducted a survey and found that VA services are underused by some of the highest-risk veterans, especially those who lack social support or are affected by undiagnosed mental illness.

Dryhootch is a coffee shop that offers veterans free access to peer mentor support and information about available health care and social services. “Dry” refers to the fact that it is free of alcohol or drugs. “Hootch” is the military term for a hut or other safe place to sleep. The organization is run by and for veterans and their extended families.

Zeno Franco, PhD, Assistant Professor of Family and Community Medicine at MCW, is the primary academic partner on the second HWPP grant: “Dryhootch iPeer – A Social and Technology Support Program for Veteran Mental Health.” This phase of the project builds on what Dr. Whittle and Curry started by using smartphone technology to improve access to peer support for younger veterans on college campuses who may be struggling with civilian reintegration. The project is responding to the needs of these veterans for “on-the-go” services that are available remotely, better fitting their busy work, family and school schedules than traditional outreach options.

“Walking into a VA hospital can be intimidating, especially for veterans returning from Afghanistan and Iraq who feel out of place among older vets. But what if they could first go someplace safe to meet others who are on the same journey? Eventually they’ll feel comfortable seeking programs and services offered by their VA,” Dr. Franco said.

Dryhootch began in 2008 with a tent on the grounds of the Zablocki VA and expanded in 2009 with a mobile coffee and outreach truck. The first permanent coffee shop opened on Milwaukee’s east side in 2010. Today, Dryhootch has a second shop in Milwaukee across from the VA, several other locations in Wisconsin, and interest from veterans’ groups in the Chicago area, St. Louis and New York.

Dryhootch partners
Primary Community Partner: Bob Curry, Dryhootch of America

Primary Academic Partner: Zeno Franco, PhD, Department of Family and Community Medicine

Additional Academic Partners:
Jeffrey Whittle, MD ’84, General Internal Medicine, VA Medical Center
Karen Berte, PhD, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Medicine
Leslie Patterson, MS, Department of Family and Community Medicine
Clare Guse, MS, Department of Family and Community Medicine

Additional Community Partners:
Edgewood College
Marquette University
Mental Health America of Wisconsin
University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
Waukesha County Technical College

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