Connecting with Veterans in Nature

group of woman smiling in front of expansive landscape

From left to right: Dr. Jenny D'Olympisa, Tia Russo, Brittany Cloutier, Kelly Ré, and Patricia Matlock.

WJC Students Led Mental Health Workshops During Camp Resilience Retreat for Veterans 

When you picture field education in clinical psychology or clinical mental health counseling, you probably don’t imagine hiking and kayaking in the Lakes Region of New Hampshire. For four William James College students, however, these activities became part of their training when they participated in the three-day veteran retreat, Camp Resilience.

Run by the Patriot Resilient Leader Institute (PRLI), Camp Resilience brings together military servicemembers, veterans, first responders, and their loved ones for a weekend of wellness, counseling, workshops, and outdoor activities. Founded in 2014 by a group of veterans, PRLI and Camp Resilience have hosted more than 100 retreats to empower participants and improve their resiliency and overall well-being.

Kelly Ré, Sarah Garde, and Alexis Childs, clinical psychology doctoral students at William James College, along with Brittney Cloutier, clinical mental health counseling master’s student, had the valuable opportunity not only to create and deliver workshops focused on mental wellbeing, but also to participate fully in the retreat’s activities.

“What I was looking to get out of the weekend was the hands-on experience,” explained Ré. 
“It was really great to be with a group of veterans, have them embrace me, and be able to provide something for them in return.”

As members of the college-wide Military and Veteran Psychology (MVP) concentration, Ré and the other student participants have already been completing field education, coursework, and other professional development opportunities related to military and veteran populations.

“One of the core values of William James College is that experiential component where students get time out in the field to hone their skills,” explained Angela Taveira-Dick, PhD, associate director of the MVP program, faculty member at William James College, and one of the coordinators of this Camp Resilience experience for students. “The retreat was in addition to their practicum experiences, but it was unique in that it was only over the course of one weekend and gave the students a lot of control over their topic and delivery of the workshops.”

The three-day format of Camp Resilience allowed the students to engage with the veterans before, during, and after the sessions. They were able to go biking, kayaking, hiking, or participate in other excursions with the attendees and fully immerse themselves into the environment of the retreat. 

“I think it really enriched the students’ understanding of who they're serving and why those folks were at the retreat,” said Taveira-Dick. “It gave them the opportunity to build a lot of rapport and collaboration with the veterans that you don't always get to do before you deliver a workshop.”

The students prepared for six months leading up to Camp Resilience, working closely on their presentations with Taveira-Dick, Dr. Jenny D’Olympia, director of the MVP and Train Vets to Treat Vets (TVTV) programs and associate chair of the Counseling and Behavioral Health department, and Patricia Matlock, MVP and TVTV consultant. Their topics included mindfulness, self-compassion, healthy relationships, suicide prevention, and understanding post-traumatic stress disorder and moral injury.

“I was really impressed with how much the students knew about their particular topics before we started the preparation for the workshops,” said Taveira-Dick. “They were able to speak off the cuff about their topics, why they would be important, and how veterans would benefit from speaking about them. We just refined their knowledge even more.”

The goal of the workshops was not to simply present information, but to fully engage with the veterans through an activity to provide them with the skills to implement these topics in their daily lives.

“Initially planning the workshop, I wasn't sure how impactful it would be or if it was something they had heard a million times,” said Ré about the session she co-led on repairing and maintaining healthy relationships. “But, I was surprised with how much interaction we got with the veterans. We spent all weekend with them, so they welcomed us into their circle, then we were able to share some skills.”

Taveira-Dick added that the veterans were not only active in the discussions, but were also “providing support in real time to other peers and connecting them with other resources in the community.”

This work with Camp Resilience has been a “great collaboration,” explained Taveira-Dick, noting that the staff was “very welcoming and supportive.”

Steve Veinotte, Kurt Webber, and John Walsh, PhD, three founders of the Patriot Resilient Leader Institute, even presented at William James College as part of the Military and Veteran Psychology Continuing Education series. In an hour-long virtual session, they introduced the community to Camp Resilience, their mission, and their impact.

In the future, Taveira-Dick and her colleagues hope to continue providing this opportunity for students in the MVP program as a way to add even more direct experience working with military servicemembers, veterans, and their families 
to the curriculum.

“I've taken so many classes at William James regarding the military and veteran population which has just been amazing,” said Ré, “but being there and really interacting with the veterans was invaluable for me. It definitely helped me practice what I had already learned in classes and enhance how I, as a clinician and as a person, can relate to veterans. I would recommend it to anybody.”


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