Equipping communities with proven programs and supports
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.