By Kathy Quirk
Michelle Watts comes from a military family and works at Veterans Affairs, so she is tuned in to the issues that may keep African-American veterans from seeking VA services. “Misinformation and a history of mistrust may be factors,” said Watts, veterans justice outreach coordinator for Milwaukee’s Clement J. Zablocki Veterans Affairs Medical Center.
The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and the VA want to help vets overcome such factors and learn what services are available. So, they’re collaborating on the Sixth Annual VA Mental Health Summit, set for Saturday, June 23, at the UWM Student Union, 2200 E. Kenwood Blvd.
This year’s summit puts a special focus on helping African-American veterans. Guest speakers include Delphine Metcalf Foster, the first woman and first African-American to serve as national commander for the Disabled American Veterans, and Reggie Jackson, head griot for America’s Black Holocaust Museum.
UWM’s Military and Veterans Resource Center often partners with the VA on important projects like this, said Jayne Holland, MAVRC’s interim director. The VA’s mobile vet center regularly visits campus, and many UWM graduates have gone on to jobs at the VA.
“They’re just an outstanding community partner,” Holland said.
The summit is one of several outreach efforts toward groups of veterans who may not know about the services available to them. “Any veteran is welcome,” said William Johnson, minority veterans program coordinator at the Zablocki VA, “but we are trying to reach out particularly to historically underrepresented groups.”
Johnson estimates there are about 11,500 African-American veterans in the five-county Milwaukee metropolitan area. However, because the VA does not track patients by race, it’s difficult to know whether all eligible vets know what services are available to them.
Johnson said this year’s summit, which runs from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., was developed with input from church, community and mental health organizations and focus groups. Breakout sessions will focus on eligibility for VA health care and benefits; racial trauma and inequality; chronic pain management; Afro-centered approaches to healing; disparities in African-American health care; and gun violence as a public health issue.
Many veterans return home from service and thrive, Johnson said. But some may need help with physical and mental health issues or substance abuse, and the VA can provide that. Last year, the VA graduated 300 Milwaukee-area veterans from substance abuse recovery programs.
Many African-American veterans have traditionally relied on family and the church for mental health support. Often, they feel there’s a stigma attached to seeking counseling through organizations such as the VA, which is a main reason the VA is reaching out.
The VA also helps veterans who are at risk of losing housing, unstably housed or actually homeless. Last year, the VA found housing for 300 Milwaukee-area veterans.
Watts’ office works with veterans on justice system issues, too. “We know in communities of color, the incarceration rates are higher than they would be for the general population,” Watts said. This is particularly critical for African-American males, who have had historically higher rates of incarceration, she added.
Previous summits have focused on Afghan-Iraqi war veterans, female veterans, veterans who are disabled and LGBT veterans. Johnson said the plan for next year’s summit is to focus on Latino veterans.
For more information, contact the VA Minority Veterans Program Office at 414-384-2000, Ext. 47129, or William.Johnson1@va.gov. You can also email UWM’s MAVRC office at firstname.lastname@example.org.