Stronger at home: How Michigan Medicine experts help military veterans

November 8, 2018  //  FOUND IN: Our Employees,

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A decade ago, U-M graduate and major donor and philanthropist Fred Wilpon had a vision: He wanted to help academic medical centers across the U.S. offer important services to veterans returning home from deployment.

To help realize this mission, he partnered with charities to offer seed money to Michigan Medicine and other sites nationwide to help them participate in an initiative known as Welcome Back Veterans.

That initial investment led to the formation of M-SPAN — or the Military Support Programs and Networks — within the Michigan Medicine Depression Center.

With the program set to celebrate its 10th anniversary this Veterans Day, here’s a closer look at the vital services M-SPAN has provided to more than 15,000 service members, veterans and military family members since 2008.

‘A holistic approach’

When it was launched, M-SPAN wanted to take a wide-ranging approach to helping veterans, choosing to focus on larger issues like stigma and isolation.

“A treatment program, no matter how good it is, will not work if the person won’t go,” said Jane Spinner, director of M-SPAN. “Barriers to care, such as not knowing where to go, or the stigma around needing help can cause veterans to decline assistance. We have tried to address those barriers through strategies like training veteran peers who are able to say, ‘I’ve been there. I know what you’re going through and I can help you get to the right place.’”

The other thing M-SPAN emphasizes is not just providing services to veterans, but to their family members, as well.

“Deployments are challenging for family members — they serve too,” Spinner said. “That’s why we have developed programs that are tailored for military spouses, partners and children that include coping and resiliency skills.”

Addressing gaps

M-SPAN is comprised of a number of programs, each dedicated to a unique and specific group.

The longest-running program is called Buddy-to-Buddy, an outreach and peer support program where veterans from the community are matched with service members or vets who need assistance getting connected to resources.

“Sometimes veterans need help getting connected to benefits they are eligible for, or need legal, housing or financial assistance,” Spinner said. “In these cases, our Buddies find the right resource for each person so that things don’t escalate and turn into mental health issues. They are all trained in local, state and federal services, so they can offer available options to the veterans with whom they work.”

Next, M-SPAN offers PAVE, or Peer Advisors for Veteran Education. PAVE is also a peer-to-peer program geared toward student veterans returning to college on the post-9/11 GI Bill. PAVE is now at 37 colleges and universities across the U.S.

“Many veterans in school are older than their peers or are first-generation college students,” Spinner said. “The transition from the military to academia can be challenging, so incoming student veterans are paired with veteran peers at their school — who are trained by our team — so they have camaraderie and support on campus.”

There’s also HomeFront Strong, which offers resiliency and positive coping skills to military and veteran spouses and partners.

Strong Military Families also focuses on families, this time providing parenting skills for military families with young children. Families can also connect with each other and share their experiences with those in similar situations.

“The littlest kiddos are often the most vulnerable when one parent is deployed and the other is left managing the home while having their own anxiety about deployment,” Spinner said.

Finally, there’s the newest program called After Her Service, which offers resiliency skills training and professional development coaching to post 9/11 female veterans, who represent almost 15 percent of the military.

Changing lives, saving lives

Keeping the programs running smoothly takes a dedicated group of 15 employees, including program and support staff. There are also research specialists, who are constantly evaluating programs and measuring their impact to make sure M-SPAN meets the needs of those it serves.

In addition to conducting outreach, operating programs and analyzing data, staff members are often tasked with creating partnerships with organizations such as the VA, nonprofits and the U.S. military itself.

There is also a dedicated faculty member, Michelle Kees, Ph.D., who serves as the principal investigator for M-SPAN’s programs, overseeing the design and evaluation of research activities.

“Many organizations provide services to veterans, but one of the ways we are set apart here at U-M is that our programs are evidence-based and evaluated with a high degree of rigor,” Kees said. “We feed the findings from the research back into program operations so we are constantly improving and making sure the programs are successful.”

It’s a lot of work — but it’s work Spinner said her team is proud to carry out.

“Many of our team members are veterans themselves and have a personal stake in these initiatives. But no matter their background, everyone here believes in what we’re doing and the impact these programs have. We know we’re not only changing people’s lives, we’re sometimes saving people’s lives.”

For more information about M-SPAN and its programs, visit www.m-span.org.

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