William James College Confronts Dire Need for Those Able to Serve Veterans

November 01, 2016

Too often, clinicians don't ask their patients about prior military service," said Harold Kudler, MD, chief consultant for mental health at the Veteran's Administration, speaking at the 2016 annual meeting of the American Psychiatric Association. "If they are not asked, vets think you don't care," he said. There are 22 million US veterans, but only nine million receive care in the VA health system. "The vast majority of vets don't use the VA," said Kudler. "Furthermore, the vast majority of mental health professionals that these millions of women and men turn to for help have no specific training about how to serve veterans and their families."

"We have chosen to honor and respect people's service and make them feel comfortable, understood and recognized."
-Dr. Robert Dingman, Director, Military and Veterans Psychology Concentration

It's true, the shortage is dire, but the good news is that William James College has developed a national model for educating military service members, veterans and civilian students to provide state-of-the-art, culturally sensitive behavioral health services to individuals and families psychologically wounded by war. In 2013, the College opened a new academic concentration: Military and Veterans Psychology. Though not all veterans studying at William James intend to treat vets, the presence of the growing number of current and former military people on the campus helps create a specific culture, according to Dr. Robert Dingman, Director of the military initiative. "We have chosen to honor and respect people's service," he says, "and make them feel comfortable, understood and recognized." The number of military-affiliated, veterans or dependent students on the campus, not including members of the faculty and staff, has grown to nearly 50.

Dingman acknowledges that there will never be enough veterans to fulfill the need for mental health professionals who are veterans. That's why he and the College are eager to train the maximum number of "culturally competent" professionals. He says that William James is the only College deliberately recruiting combat veterans to become military psychologists.

William James also makes a special effort for women who have served. In response to feelings of marginalization women often report throughout the national discussion of caring for vets, the College has hosted a special weekend for females and children for the past three years. Following a short program, women are offered massages, meditation sessions, group discussions and yoga in an attempt to both honor them and remind them of the importance of self care, according to Dingman.


(Left) Elena Tillman, PsyD, being commissioned as a Navy Lieutenant following commencement ceremonies in June 2016. (Right) Air Force Captain Jenny D'Olympia, Clinical Psychology PsyD student, hopes to lead other mental health professionals to help veterans.

From Civilian to Navy Lieutenant

Over the last few years, there has also been an interest in military and veterans psychology among William James College civilian students. Elena Tillman, PsyD, had the unique experience of being commissioned as a Lieutenant in the Navy at her graduation ceremony in June 2016. Her grandparents were both WWII veterans, her grandmother in the Marines and her grandfather in the Navy. From them she learned about the love and respect they shared for military service. "It was always in the back of my head," says Tillman. "My ultimate goal was always to give back. I worked with veterans at McLean Hospital in 2012-13 as part of my doctoral training. There I saw the emotional and psychological distress so many veterans bring home." She credits William James College for exposing her to veterans' problems, including substance abuse, anxiety and depression, traumatic brain injuries, pernicious trauma reactions, relational difficulties and severe problems of adjustment. Tillman will be in a naval medical center in Portsmouth, Virginia for a year, followed by three years of active duty and four in the reserves. She and her family are thrilled.

Understanding Military Culture

"It's important for people to be aware of the unique needs of veterans and their families. Make no assumptions about a person's experience." ­
-Captain Jenny D'Olympia, veteran and Clinical Psychology PsyD student

Air Force Captain Jenny D'Olympia, a William James College third-year doctoral student and the mother of children ages eight, three and two, was in service for nine years. She insists, "It' important for people to be aware of the unique needs of veterans and their families. I want to help people who want to help veterans," she says, having already been a mental health counselor for seven years, mostly serving veterans. "I know how hard it can be." D'Olympia is eager to do what she loves, psychological testing and assessment. "I need a break from trauma work," she says. "Maybe I'l be a supervisor or help with training. Those with no exposure to military life have much to learn about that culture," she says. "Having information ahead of time will enable them to build trust with veterans, but they need to learn what questions to ask and what questions not to ask." D'Olympia was deployed twice to Afghanistan where she also spent her honeymoon with her Air Force husband, in separate units. He is still active duty. "Every individual's time in the military is unique," she says, "depending on what they bring to the table. Make no assumptions about a person's experience."