In my last column, I talked about the importance of grassroots, civilian-funded programs that focus on meeting the emotional needs of service members and veterans. As gaps increase in the care that can be provided to those who serve our country, these programs become a critical component of the overall rehabilitation of these individuals.
And, in addition to traditional mental health services, many of these grassroots programs embrace non-traditional interventions such as equine, recreational and art therapy and meditation.
One example of this type of program is Boulder Crest Retreat (BCR). BCR is a community based, non-profit, private organization in Bluemont, Virginia. BCR demonstrates many of the strengths of grassroots programs. Below are some of the most unique aspects of the program that I believe are responsible for its success.
Veteran Leadership and Staff
The founder of BCR is a retired US Navy Master Chief Petty Officer, business owner, and entrepreneur. In addition to donating the first million dollars and 37 acres of his family’s 200-acre estate, he also has the leadership and organizational capabilities honed during his time in the military and as a business owner to create the retreat center and attract initial funding.
The people at the core of his staff are veterans themselves. Having veterans as the core of the staff is important for the program to have credibility for participants and to maintain a perspective on what is going to make sense and work for veterans as it undergoes further development.
Unlike many clinic-based programs run by mental health professionals, at BCR, there is very little sense of separateness between the veteran participants and staff. It is an environment that is often characterized by participants as “being home and surrounded by loved ones.”
The Right Environment
The methodology of the program at BCR is generally meditative and the activities, environment, and interactions with the staff are designed to enhance the reflective focus of the program.
For veterans and family members under stress, this peaceful experience allows for greater interpersonal connection, emotional focus and personal discovery.
The rural setting is enhanced with the physical structures built of timbers and logs, with warm wood interiors and beautiful views. This physical environment gives a message that participants are going to be cared for and are valued, so the accommodations are part of the process.
In addition, the staff spends virtually all the program time with participants, eating meals together and engaging in the various outdoor activities.
The Right Experiences
The programs at BCR take place over several days and are residential. Because there is much time spent together with other participants and staff, participants are involved in many hours of the program experience that may be comparable to many months of traditional therapeutic interventions.
But the difference between this type of program and traditional behavioral health interventions is also qualitative. Although BCR includes in some of their programs therapeutic elements such as interpersonal skill building and cognitive change interventions, overall its approach is based on creating a milieu that emphasizes normalization, mutual support, and living skills.
Instead of focusing exclusively on the reduction of symptoms, the approach of BCR is one of growth and learning to live a better and more fulfilling life.
A Focus on Growth
Given that there are veterans and families whose needs vary, there needs to be a variety of programs under the overall philosophical umbrella of the organization. Currently, BCR has programs that focus on male and female veterans, military and veteran transitions, veterans’ families, and mentorships that link older and younger veterans.
These programs share a small group approach and a philosophy that veterans have valuable capabilities that are honed in their military experiences and that mutual support emphasizes these capabilities.
This philosophy runs counter to a general societal assumption that people who are wounded are broken and instead emphasizes the strengths that can come from stressful and traumatic events if these experiences are treated as catalysts for growth.
Using a model that incorporates posttraumatic growth as an assumption rather than a focus on disorder or pathology, participants immediately find themselves treated with respect and encouragement.
Balancing Innovation and Evidence-Based Techniques
While BCR is not a treatment center or clinic, it shares goals of traditional clinical treatment centers, of enhancing the functioning of veterans and families in their communities. Being privately funded and using small group programming, BCR acts as a laboratory for exploring the effectiveness of alternative approaches to helping veterans and families achieve posttraumatic growth.
Although there are a variety of activities involved in the programming, all have a common element of meditative, reflective experience that they share. Walking a labyrinth, yoga, kayaking, archery, working with horses and similar activities, help to reduce anxiety, and encourage a more mindful self-awareness that helps in allowing participants to consider their emotional wounds and to create a positive idea for their future selves.
Traditional therapies are not offered in these short-term programs, but elements of empirically based therapies are introduced and integrated throughout the activities of the programs. Cognitive behavioral approaches are represented in how veterans are encouraged to think about themselves and their experiences, relaxation and meditative techniques are emphasized in many activities, and group psychoeducational sessions introduce participants to more accurate ways to understand symptoms, family dynamics, communications, and practical living skills.
BCR, in my opinion, epitomizes the strength found within grassroots, civilian-funded programs that are created to meet the needs of service members and veterans. It is strength-focused, non-dependent on excessive governmental regulations and managed and staffed mostly by veterans who understand those they serve.
Although not a replacement for traditional mental health services, programs like BCR are as important as these programs and offer a variety of services that they cannot. Visit the website www.bouldercrestretreat.org to learn more about Boulder Crest Retreat.
*A version of this article is scheduled to be published in the newsletter The Military Psychologist.