Female veterans need mental health care just as much as their male counterparts do. But traditional options for treatment like those offered at the nation’s VA hospitals often aren’t well-suited for women’s lives, said Trista Matascastillo, program officer and chair of the St. Paul-based nonprofit Women Veterans Initiative (WVI).
In May, WVI received a $20,000 seed grant from the Catalyst Initiative to promote alternative mental health therapies for female veterans.
“Like so many programs available for veterans, VA mental health services were originally designed for men,” Matascastillo said. “Female veterans are an afterthought, like, ‘Oh, yeah. Women can be veterans, too. This approach will probably work for them.’”
Consider the VA’s “default” approach to treating anxiety, depression or PTSD with medication, Matascastillo said, or the amount of time vets often have to spend waiting to see a health care provider.
“Even more than men, women vets don’t want to take that pill when they have a mental health concern,” she said. “Many women veterans are mothers. They don’t have time to be fatigued or groggy. And they can’t spend five hours waiting to see a doctor at the VA. They have to get their kids off the bus.”
Because female vets have been asking for alternatives to traditional mental health therapies for years, Matascastillo and her fellow WVI board members developed programs that offer other options for treating mental health concerns. These include multiday wellness retreats, one-day workshops and a series of “Warrior Fit” yoga classes.
“Women vets tell us they need other kinds of services to be able to heal from their traumas,” Matascastillo said. “We’d like to provide some of those services. We see alternative therapies as one pathway to healing that is well suited to the needs of women veterans.”
A seed is planted
WVI was one of 12 Minnesota nonprofits awarded one-time seed grants from the Catalyst Initiative, a $3 million, three-year program of the George Family Foundation. Inspired by board chair Penny George’s leadership in the integrative health and healing, the Catalyst Initiative focuses on funding mind-body practices that are culturally meaningful to a variety of communities and groups.
Half of the Catalyst grant will fund WVI’s “Train the Trainer” project, which will provide scholarships for three women veterans to earn Mind-Body Medicine Fundamental certifications through the Washington-D.C.-based Center for Mind-Body Medicine. After they’ve earned their certification, these trainers will return to WVI to teach classes and workshops on alternative mental health treatments.
The other half of the grant money will fund wellness workshops, seminars and a series of Warrior Fit yoga classes.
“We’ve scheduled a couple of wellness days and weekend retreats where women veterans come together and experience a wide array of healing modalities,” Matascastillo said. “At these events, they can take a class on mindfulness, have a massage, do acupuncture, healing touch like Reiki energy work. They can also take a Warrior Fit adaptive yoga class, which is a form of yoga designed for people who may suffer from PTSD or other disabilities.”
Suzanne Koepplinger, Catalyst Initiative director, said that WVI was a good candidate to receive the seed grant because the organization is trying to tackle the problem of veterans’ mental health from a new perspective.
“This group has a real willingness to look at alternative ways to manage pain and heal from PTSD,” Koepplinger said. “I think there is a lot of readiness out there.”
From Koepplinger’s perspective, the mainstream approach to treating mental illness in veterans has had some serious failings.
“If you look at the VA’s history,” she said, “a tremendous amount of PTSD is being treated by antidepressants and a lot of pain management is treated with heavy narcotics, which in some cases have had tragic outcomes. We need to be looking for alternatives, and WVI is doing that. I see these women warriors as being the driving force changing the traditional way of looking at healing.”
By vets for vets
Formed in 2008, WVI was the brainchild of a group of women veterans. Matascastillo, who served 16 years of active duty, was one of the founders. The idea behind WVI was that veteran services did not always take into account the unique needs of women. The group wanted to make sure that female vet needs were given equal consideration to male vets.
“We created our organization specifically looking at where there were gaps in services for women veterans,” Matascastillo said. “We wanted to make sure women were included on the front end, rather than after the fact.”
There are almost 30,000 women veterans in Minnesota. Matascastillo said that her organization — which is run by a staff of eight volunteer board members — has connected with 2,000 of them so far.
“We really get it,” Matascastillo said of her organization’s leaders. “We understand women veterans because we are vets ourselves. Our whole board is made up of veterans.” Because of their personal histories, WVI staffers are committed to keeping female veterans’ needs front and center. Without this focus, Matascastillo said, women veterans — and their many contributions to society — remain in the shadows.
“This acknowledgement is more important than most people realize. Even today, you’d be surprised how many people don’t think of women when they hear the word ‘veteran,’ ” she said.