Veterans who need mental health services can turn to talk therapy, which often occurs in group settings run by the Department of Veterans Affairs.
When Eric Golnik left the Navy after eight years in the service, he was frustrated by how hard it was to find counseling that felt right for him as a gay veteran.
Today, the CEO and founder of VFR Healthcare, Golnick and his team are creating trauma resources for LGBTQ+ vets and first responders.
Golnick joined NHPR’s All Things Considered Host Peter Biello to talk about his work with LGBTQ+ veterans.
So tell us a little bit about your experience. What was it like for you after you left the Navy, trying to find mental health services?
Yeah, absolutely. You know, I served when don't ask, don't tell was in full effect. And that had a level of trauma within itself, right? Anytime you got called into a commanding officer’s office, you may think, oh, gosh, what if they found out? Your whole career's over. So there was that kind of overall experience that I had in the Navy when I got out. I had a pretty, pretty rough last war. And one of my sailors, unfortunately, died by suicide in front of me. And what happened was it was difficult for me to really get help, and that cultural competent help, and especially, you know, as you're dealing with the stigma of mental health, you're also dealing the stigma of being an LGBTQ veteran. So it kind of compounded on itself.
And so you went out searching for help and it was it was hard to find?
Yeah, it was it was difficult. And especially my last duty station was down in Miami where I was working off for a four star general. And, you know, we did Latin American affairs. And, you know, there's not a big base there. There's not a big V.A. presence. So it was much more difficult to find folks that not only understood kind of the veteran and first responder aspect of it, but the LGBTQ part. And to me, it's hard to find folks that can understand both really that can kind of connect with both of those things.
Why is it important to have a group dedicated to LGBTQ plus veterans?
As an LGBTQ veteran myself, you run into issues where we are a very stubborn bunch as veterans to begin with. And when it comes to getting help, you don't need help. You are the helper. Right? So you've got that stigma, and then you've got on top of that in a very hypermasculine society or culture, you've got the LGBT stigma where it's difficult for a veteran to talk amongst other veterans that are not LGBTQ. You may not feel as comfortable opening up in a group setting. So it's vital to give folks kind of that that opportunity to have a safe place where they can express themselves completely without having to hold anything back.
So what kind of feedback have you received from participants so far?
I've been blown away with how great the feedback has been, and that is not me. That is much more like our clinical team is incredible. Folks have said that this has been an amazing way to express themselves and really get the help they need with folks that actually understand it. And we do this in partnership with the V.A. The V.A. does amazing work as well on the LGBT veterans side. But it's you know, for us, it's complementing them. So we've had a great experience with that saying, like, look, this has been something where I actually feel like I can be myself and actually talk about issues that I wouldn't feel comfortable talking about in a regular group setting.
This is only available to New Hampshire veterans at the moment, yes?
Yes, we are starting it in New Hampshire, but we want to expand it to our other facilities in other states. But we want to get it right here. We want to do it really well here in New Hampshire, being a rural state.
You've mentioned in public forums about being concerned about rural veterans, about rural LGBTQ veterans getting access to services like this. Can you talk a little bit about the obstacles they may face?
Absolutely. And it's not just veterans in the LGBTQ community, rural LGBTQ folks in general, it's difficult when it comes to LGBTQ health. But veterans and specifically, there's an issue when it comes to getting that trauma help in rural areas. And so what we're trying to do and I've been trying to work with folks, especially Congressman Pappas has been awesome, and his team working through some of the broadband issues, but you have vets that are unable to directly drive three and a half, four hours to get help. And it's difficult for them to go back and forth. So a lot of these group therapy sessions and therapy in general, one on one, it's once a week, twice a week. So what we're trying to do is help build capacity with the V.A. and offer kind of, well, medicine, but the issues that come up with that, again, go to Internet connectivity in some of these areas. So we're trying to work through that as we speak. But there's no quick, easy answer to it.
Eric Golnik is the CEO of VFR Healthcare. Thank you very much for speaking with me about this. Really appreciate it.
Thank you very much, Peter. Really appreciate you having me.