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Peer Outreach Program Aims to Save Lives by Engaging More Veterans in Mental Health Services

Steve Heiges Hired as First Peer Specialist in the Medical College of Wisconsin (MCW) and Milwaukee VA’s Captain John D. Mason Peer Outreach Program

Milwaukee, Nov. 7, 2018 – A new veteran outreach program in the Medical College of Wisconsin (MCW) Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Medicine in collaboration with the Milwaukee Veterans Affairs Medical Center aims to save lives by locating veterans in need and engaging them in VA health services.

One hundred and thirty-three Wisconsin veterans died by suicide in 2014, a rate similar to that of other Midwestern states and the nation. In most of these cases, veterans have little to no contact with Veterans Affairs physicians and mental health staff. An estimated 70 percent of veterans who die by suicide are not regular users of VA services.

With the goal of establishing health care for veterans not currently engaging with the VA’s services, the Captain John D. Mason Peer Outreach Program will coordinate directly with a diverse range of community, civic and religious organizations to locate veterans in need.

No other veterans group in the region takes this approach. Most existing programs require veterans to self-identify as someone in need of services before they can work with them.

“If we can get our veterans in the door, we can provide them access to the care they need to mitigate the mental health conditions that can lead to suicide,” said Jon Lehrmann, MD, the Charles E. Kubly Chair in Psychiatry and Behavioral Medicine at MCW. “Peer consultations and outreach help chart a new path for these men and women before it is too late to receive the support they deserve. A program like this gives us the chance to save lives.”

The program is named after Captain John D. Mason, a Vietnam veteran who struggled silently with depression and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Not wanting to burden his family and friends with his inner struggles, and mindful of the stigma behind mental illness, Capt. Mason never sought sufficient treatment for these conditions. In August 2013, he died by suicide.

Reflecting on John’s life and the inspiration behind the peer outreach program, the Mason family said, “John believed in the camaraderie among veterans, who often understand each other in ways no others can.”

With pilot funding from Joseph P. and Jenifer O. Tate, Steve Heiges was hired as the peer specialist for the program’s first year. Heiges is a Certified Wisconsin Peer Specialist, DBSA Veteran Peer Specialist and a Dryhootch Peer Specialist. He is a retired Army combat engineer with 26 years of service including multiple deployments in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom. His main goals are to provide a gateway to access care at the Milwaukee Veterans Affairs Medical Center and with other veteran community resources, as needed, and, secondly to provide hope and empowerment to fellow veterans in context to reintegration and wellness “so they do not have to struggle like me for so many years.”

Beyond his roles of disseminating information about VA health services to veterans outside the Milwaukee Veterans Affairs Medical Center and identifying veterans not yet enrolled in VA health care and helping them enroll, Heiges will support his veteran peers in articulating their goals for recovery, identifying barriers to achieving these goals and advocating for themselves to obtain effective health services.

The program director is Sadie Larsen, PhD, Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Medicine at the Medical College of Wisconsin and Psychologist at the Milwaukee VA. Larsen specializes in evidence-based therapy with veterans with PTSD. She is an active researcher and publishes on treatment of PTSD as well. Working with this project allows her to focus on Veteran health and to evaluate the effectiveness of the program, with a unique angle of outreach rather than therapy.

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