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Community Engagement Specialist Ted Thomas Works to Improve Veterans' Lives

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A veteran who has struggled with mental health and substance use challenges following his service in the Gulf War in the early 1990s, Ted Thomas knows the challenges that veterans face. Now, Thomas strives to improve their lives through his work as a Community Engagement Specialist for Cardinal Innovations.

Last November, as a new member of Community Engagement, Thomas was asked to chair a planning committee for the regional North Carolina Student Transition Resource Initiative for Veteran's Education (NC STRIVE) in Charlotte, N.C. NC STRIVE works to improve the creation of employment, health and wellness, legal and financial services and benefits for veterans.

“Transitioning from active military life to living in a regular community is quite a culture shift and often brings about considerable conflict and readjustment issues," said Thomas, a combat veteran who served during the Gulf War in 1990-91 with the Naval Mobile Construction Battalion in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.

“PTSD (Posttraumatic Stress Disorder), depression and substance use are certainly at the top of the list of behavioral health challenges veterans face – some early on in the transition period. Others may not experience any issues until a significant event triggers them such as divorce, civilian job loss, major health conditions or other events," he said.

Thomas also is a certified Peer Support Specialist who has worked at the VA Hospital directly with veterans. The VA Hospital system recognized the value to having trained and certified Peer Support Specialists (PSS) work alongside their interdisciplinary teams, Thomas said.

“A PSS at the VA is first a veteran (many are combat veterans), then, secondly, a veteran who is well established in their own recovery of mental health or substance use challenges," he said.

Thomas served as a PSS Trainer for over 60 veterans, working alongside the Psychosocial Rehab and Recovery Center where education, counseling and coaching is provided to veterans experiencing serious mental health challenges.

“One of the most remarkable opportunities for me was to teach and coach a veteran about recovery and wellness, which lead to him moving from his mom's home into his own apartment and getting a job with the assistance of the VA's supported employment program," Thomas said. “He was 55 years old and had been living a limited life under his mom's care locally. He struggled with bipolar disorder with PTSD and frequent suicidal thoughts. We developed a wellness plan along with specific coping skills and tools."

During an assessment with his psychiatrist, the veteran was asked what contributed to his recovery and improved management of his life.

Gesturing toward Thomas, he said, “Nobody here ever told me about recovery. I didn't know that my life could be better. Thanks to my peer support here, I know that life doesn't have to be the way it has been for the past 20 years."

Thomas also is certified in the Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) Veterans Module, and along with fellow veteran and trainer Arin Wilhelm, has trained 68 members of the Charlotte, N.C., community in Veteran's MHFA. Wilhelm is a Community Engagement Specialist working in the Piedmont Region.

MHFA is a course that teaches participants how to identify, understand and respond to signs of mental illnesses and substance use disorders, helping them get the help they need. The Veterans Module specifically focuses on the needs of veterans and their families.

“Military training conditions us to push through the tough and rough challenges, and to keep focused on the mission in front of us, not allowing for our internal issue to be an obstacle," Thomas said. “As a military member and even more so a veteran, to ask for help, especially something like mental or emotional help, carries many unwanted consequences – true or perceived."

Thomas said the MHFA Veterans curriculum focuses on issues faced uniquely by veterans and their family members. “Several well done videos are integrated in the training which depict real-life veteran stories and outcomes along with signs and symptoms unique to veterans struggling with PTSD, depression and other issues."

The region of North Carolina that Cardinal Innovations serves has a high number of veterans trying to reintegrate into their communities.

“The MHFA Veterans class is really eye opening to many other agencies and organizations who may touch the lives of veterans and their families. It is truly need-to-know information, skills and tools," said LaShay Avery, Community Engagement Manager and Thomas' supervisor.

Approximately 97 people including college and university administrators, representatives from Local Management Entity/Managed Care Organizations (LME/MCOs), treatment providers, veteran services organizations, behavioral health advocates, and federal and state agency representatives attended the NC STRIVE conference that Thomas helped plan. The goal was to bring together new stakeholders who potentially interface with veterans and can also help improve their lives.

“Veterans as well as stakeholders that work with veterans throughout our counties are benefiting from Thomas' lived experience, compassion for veterans, and passion to make a difference," Avery said.

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