With more than 40,000 nonprofits in the U.S. dedicated to serving veterans, it can be overwhelming for veteran families to navigate such a vast ocean of resources, especially if they are not connected to a community of support after military life. That’s where Dr. Elisa Borah and her Institute for Military and Veteran Family Wellness (IMVFW) at the Steve Hicks School (SHS) step in.
Dr. Borah, Director of the Institute and an Associate Professor of Research within the SHS and Dell Medical School’s Department of Health Social Work (DHSW), founded the institute in 2018. Housed within the Institute is the Veteran Spouse Network (VSN), founded in 2016 to serve military and veteran spouses and families through research-driven peer support programs.
The relationship between the VSN and IMFVW is symbiotic—the Institute provides VSN with effective programming and peer support curriculum, based on research and evaluations it conducts. The Institute also supports training and graduate education and is a home for active duty, military-affiliated doctoral students at SHS.
The VSN also partners closely with nonprofits in Texas and around the country through referrals of spouses and veteran families to and from the VSN.
The ultimate goal of the VSN is to better the lives of the veteran spouses and families they serve, with a specific focus on mental health and social and community support. The VSN does not provide clinical services, but instead designs and delivers peer support in line with participants’ preferences. “It’s the gap in support that we’ve found that spouses need,” says VSN Program Manager, Hannah O’Brien.
VSN understands its lane of service: “We don’t do everything; we refer individuals to the best resources in their community . . . Our outlook is definitely holistic wellness, but we don’t do all the work. There are other organizations out there who provide other supports very well, and we want to lift them up by referring our participants to them,” Hannah explains.
After the VSN’s founding, Dr. Borah heard from spouses who were lacking community and peer support. In response, they developed a peer support group curriculum that eventually developed into the Veteran Spouse Resiliency Group (V-SRG) Program, which launched in 2018, providing 12-week peer-led, curriculum-driven, and evidenced-based support groups to veteran spouses and partners.
In 2020, VSN launched the Veteran Family Transition Program, helping to prepare military families to become veteran families. Both Dr. Borah and Hannah have observed that, while service members do receive some support when they transition to civilian life, their families do not receive similarly tailored supports. The VSN provides transition-focused resources for families related to switching careers, finding housing, offering peer support groups, and sharing resources on transition-specific topics.
The VSN also provides one-on-one peer support, launching their Resiliency Check-ins last summer to pair military and veteran spouses and family members with peers to get more individualized support.
Engaging the Population
The VSN is person-centered, meaning that when developing new programming it does not assume what each population needs, but instead engages the people they intend to serve by first asking them what they need and want.
Working alongside the veteran spouse population is vital to VSN’s effectiveness. Dr. Borah explains that the VSN prioritizes hearing directly from those it serves regarding their experiences and preferred program formats. “Shared experiences are exactly what they’re looking for,” says Hannah. “They are so ready to find people who understand what they are going through, and who have had similar life experiences during or after their loved one’s military service.”
That emphasis on human relationships is one of the social work tenets that drive the VSN. “We know from research that social isolation can only make mental health concerns worse. You really need your community and your family members to be connected with you to feel supported and to thrive,” says Dr. Borah.
Instead of using individual counseling with clients, the VSN uses a peer support model to build and facilitate communities that can provide each other with support. Says Hannah, “We believe that the peer has a lot to offer.” In order to provide their programming, they train and support around 50 volunteer peer leaders to deliver group and individual peer support.
Military vs. Veteran Spouses
Knowing what resources are available to veterans and their loved ones is vital when leaving the extreme structure of military life. The VSN aims to serve military and veteran families as they navigate active-duty life, transition to civilian life, and put down roots after military life, and each part of the journey is different.
Hannah points out that not everyone expects the difficulties of reentering civilian life, and they all have different needs and require different supports. She wishes more people knew that there is so much diversity and experience within the larger catch-all population of “military and veteran families.”
“That’s why we really try to define a veteran spouse,” says Dr. Borah, “and we’re one of the first organizations to really recommend use of that term.” The experiences and needs of military spouses of those serving in the active, Guard or Reserve components of the U.S. Armed Forces differ from the needs of spouses whose veterans no longer serve. Even within those populations, there are many sub-populations with different needs – for example, divorced spouses, widowed or “Gold Star” spouses still need the emotional and social support that the VSN provides.
The VSN utilizes the concept of resiliency throughout its programming, echoing military culture. “Resiliency is not problem-focused; it’s strengths-based. It focuses on building your toolkit and support network so you can handle challenges,” Dr. Borah explains.
Resiliency also informs the way that the VSN relates to its network of veteran spouses. Says Dr. Borah, “We train them to help others through peer support. We don’t treat them as though they’re a client in need of professional help.” This model of empowerment results in the veteran spouses being treated as equals, with a wealth of knowledge and experience to share. It’s not just about problem solving but about the value of giving and receiving peer support. This indicates to them, in Dr. Borah’s words, “By relying on your network of peers, you do have the way forward, you do know how to solve what’s going on in your life.”
The Future of the VSN
Looking ahead for the VSN, Dr. Borah and Hannah are excited about upcoming opportunities, especially chances for them to expand VSN nationally. They are currently partnering with Blue Star Families on a pilot of VSN’s curriculum to Blue Star Spouses. For now, this opportunity is restricted to Texas, but the hope is for it to expand throughout the country.
Additionally, K9s for Warriors, an organization based in Florida that provides trained service dogs to veterans, approached VSN last year, wanting support developing their own “VSN” for their “Advocates,” the spouses and family members of veterans in their program. Dr. Borah and Hannah are adapting their curriculum to help K9s for Warriors provide holistic, whole-family support when bringing a service dog into the family.
With so many iterations and subpopulations of military and veteran families—whether active duty, divorced, National Guard and Reservist families, “Gold Star” families or families of veterans who are justice-involved, the VSN aims to help build community for all of these groups, ensuring all military and veteran families receive the support they deserve.