Military families face unique challenges – frequent moves, long separations and parents returning from active duty injured or suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. It can be an anxiety-filled lifestyle for both the deployed parent and the one who remains to manage the household alone – and even more difficult if the family includes children with special needs.
To help ease the mental health burden of New Jersey families affected by military service, the National Call Center at Rutgers University Behavioral Health Care (UBHC) has launched Military Mom2Mom (844-645-6261), a 24/7 confidential peer support helpline staffed by military parents and behavioral specialists. It joins three similar helplines operated by the call center: New Jersey Vet2Vet and Vets4Warriors, which serve veterans and active duty, National Guard and Reserve military personnel, and Mom2Mom, which provides support for caregivers of children with special needs.
UBHC recognized a need for Military Mom2Mom to offer support for the families as they navigate many challenges, to suggest professional counseling if the indicators present themselves, and offer guidance on resources available. The helpline is sponsored by a grant from the Health Care Foundation of New Jersey, which launched its Veterans Mental Health Initiative last spring after almost a year of networking with providers within the VA system and the healthcare community. “We discovered that unattended mental health needs rose to the top of identified gaps in service due to the scarcity of appropriate services available, the wait list for services that do exist and the stigma that often prevents veterans from seeking the help they need,” says Marsha Atkind, CEO of the foundation.
Although the number of military families with special needs children is not quantified, more than 15 percent of children in the United States have disabilities. “We were seeing a lot of military families calling the Mom2Mom line, and callers on the military lines requesting resources for their special needs children,” says Dawn Dreyer Valovcin, a supervising mental health specialist at the UBHC National Call Center. “There was a demand to have a dedicated helpline to address these families’ unique issues.”
Military Mom2Mom peer support counselor Melissa Tippett, an Army combat veteran who also answers calls to Vets4Warriors, understands the importance of speaking to someone who has been there. When Tippett was medically discharged in 2006, she faced more than recuperation from an injury that caused permanent nerve damage in her right arm: She had to learn how to reconnect with her two young special needs sons after deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq.
“Mothers are the traditional primary caregivers, and it was challenging to reintroduce myself to these small children who didn’t know me,” says the Dunellen mother. “There are no words I can use to describe how tough that time was.”Her son, Nasir, 11, suffered from meconium aspiration syndrome, a condition that places him at risk for serious breathing problems. Rahim, 9, is on the autism spectrum. “It’s complicated when you’re in the military and have a child with health issues,” she says. “I had to take extra leave when Nasir went into cardiac arrest and had to have a blood transfusion. I thought we would lose him.”
Although Tippett had supportive family and friends, they couldn’t relate to her situation – none had ever been deployed parents or injured in service. She recalls the support she received from a Vietnam veteran who befriended her while she was undergoing treatment at a VA hospital. “I was as miserable as I could be, and he helped me so much just by listening,” she says. “We had an instant bond; I didn’t need to explain anything since he had walked in my boots.”
Tippett says callers to the helpline receive the same support. “They don’t have to explain to me what it’s like to move four times in three years or how you deal with your child when you are in the field for two weeks,” she says. “I get it.”
Military Mom2Mom answers calls from anyone – parents, spouses, children – who is affected by military service. The callers range from parents concerned about their children in the service and military families grappling with reuniting with a parent, to spouses seeking resources for special needs children or helping a loved one who is struggling with a service-related disability.
Peer counselors provide ongoing, personalized support, resource referrals and call families back to check their progress. “We stay in contact with them until their issue is resolved,” Tippett says. “We want them to know that they are not alone.”
For more information, contact Patti Verbanas at 848-932-0551 or firstname.lastname@example.org