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Veteran mental health summit Aug. 13

By: Maria Allard | Warren Weekly | Published August 10, 2015

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WARREN — Military veterans in need of mental health services are encouraged to attend a mental health summit Aug. 13 at Macomb Community College’s South Campus.

The Detroit VA Healthcare System’s Mental Health Services will hold “Making the VA Work for You” in K Building from 9 a.m.-3 p.m. South Campus is located at 14500 E. 12 Mile Road in Warren. All military branches are welcome.

The event will give participants and their family members the opportunity to learn more about the mental health services offered at the John D. Dingell VA Medical Center, located in Detroit.

“We want to encourage any veteran who is struggling to please reach out to us and learn more about the VA,” said Dr. Bella Schanzer, medical center chief of mental health. “We’re here to support the veterans so they get the recommended mental health and care they need and desire.”

A number of programs are available for military veterans; however, they must qualify for VA services. The Aug. 13 summit will feature a panel of mental health professionals from the community who will discuss what types of services the medical center offers. The event also will include breakout sessions related to various mental health issues.

Dr. Fred Frese — the former director of psychology at Western Reserve Psychiatric Hospital and coordinator of the Summit County, Ohio Recovery Project — will present the keynote address during lunch. 

“Dr. Frese is an incredible speaker, having treated conditions such as schizophrenia for more than 40 years,” Schanzer said.  “There’s so much we can learn from him, and we are delighted to have him present at the conference.”

The event is free, but all participants must register via email at allen.warrick@va.gov. A continental breakfast and lunch will be available to all registered participants. For more information, call (313) 576-2400.

Veterans who qualify for mental health services at the VA are assigned to a team that consists of a psychiatrist, a social worker, a psychologist, a nurse, a substance use disorder specialist and a peer.

“They can be seen by the team anytime they need to be,” Schanzer said. “We have open hours and appointments. We have so many veterans whose lives have been positively impacted by the treatment they receive.”

That includes that of 63-year-old Vietnam veteran Ulysses Spencer. Spencer’s military story began 45 years ago, when the young man was drafted into the U.S. Air Force during the Vietnam conflict. Between 1970 and 1974, Spencer made about 100 round-trips to Vietnam. 

“On my return trips, I would bring back the fallen soldiers, human remains and those wounded,” he said.

Spencer, who was married at the time, didn’t talk about his military service. He hid his feelings, something his father, a World War II combat veteran who served in the Philippines, also did.

Over the years, the Detroit resident dealt with the pain of those lost in Vietnam by self-medicating with drugs and alcohol. He didn’t like to go to sleep at night because of the nightmares, so he used crack cocaine to stay up for days at a time.

The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, “brought my world down,” Spencer said. “I went all the way back to Vietnam when I saw those planes crash. That was my downward spiral. It all came at once. I was completely out of control.”

His marriage suffered, and he and his wife eventually divorced, though they stayed on friendly terms. Spencer became homeless, and for six years he lived in abandoned buildings in Detroit. Sometimes his sister Belinda would bring him food and coffee.

She and her husband, Richard, never gave up on Spencer. In 2008, Belinda brought her brother to the John D. Dingell VA. At first, he did not want to talk about Vietnam and did not trust anyone.

“I met a social worker. She took me by the hand. She said, ‘Welcome home, soldier,’” Spencer recalled. “I never heard those words in my life. I couldn’t stop crying. We weren’t welcomed home from Vietnam. We were called names.”

It took time for him to open up. Medical staff diagnosed Spencer with post-traumatic stress disorder and major depression.

“I knew nothing about help for veterans,” he said. “It takes a lot of courage to come to the VA and say, ‘I need help.’”

After successfully undergoing a number of programs — including time spent in the psychiatric ward — Spencer was on his way to recovery.

“When I saw the results of what they were doing at the VA, I wanted to stay,” Spencer said. “The whole staff was involved in my recovery.”

He is clean and sober and now works at the VA hospital helping other veterans. He meets with about eight to 15 vets each day, helping them with many issues.

Spencer is a full-time staff member in the Psychosocial Rehabilitation and Recovery Center, a multidisciplinary program for those veterans needing more intensive support as they recover from mental illness and reintegrate into the community.

“I deal with veterans old and new. They have the same problems I had trying to live,” said Spencer, who remarried last year to wife Christina, also a vet. “Being a peer, I do my program based on my own experience.”

The John D. Dingell VA Medical Center is located at 4646 John R Road in Detroit. Services are available to more than 330,000 veterans in Wayne, Oakland, Macomb and St. Clair counties.

For more information, visit www.detroit.va.gov.

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