Therapists, families help hurting vets

Published 9:34 pm Friday, April 17, 2015

By Tonya S. Swindell

April is “Occupational Therapy Month” as designated by the American Occupational Therapy Association.

One of my most rewarding activities to do as an occupational therapist is to provide life skills training for male and female veterans. Although I work within a mental health setting, occupational therapists work with people of all ages in different environments, like school systems, acute care hospitals, rehabilitation centers, nursing homes and home health agencies.

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When I facilitate my weekly “Life Skills Group” for veterans of different war eras and branches of service, a veteran often talks about the vivid sights, sounds and smells that flood his mind years after the events that triggered them.

Instead of pretending to know all the answers to veterans’ questions, I facilitate discussions with group members so they can listen, learn from and comfort one another. When needed, I educate them about life skills, such as assertiveness, anger management, stress management and socialization.

Participants often encourage one another by sharing personal stories, scriptures or quotes. They also talk about other coping strategies they use, like staying in “the rooms” — another name for Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous — which helps them to avoid people, places and things that hinder their sobriety. Many veterans say they gain hope by praying and seeking God.

The author of 3 John 1:2 says he wishes above all things that others prosper and be in good health, even as their mind, will and emotions prosper. God uses people to heal and create new life in many different ways, and I believe occupational therapy is one of them.

But there are many different things loved ones can do to help veterans. They can listen to their concerns and encourage them to sleep, eat a balanced diet, take prescribed medications and make time for fun activities. If veterans encounter problems in any of those areas, follow-up with their primary care physician may be warranted.

One of the goals of occupational therapy is “to help people across the lifespan participate in the things they want and need to do through the therapeutic use of everyday activities.” Veterans express a need and desire to have meaningful lives within their families and community, but they may find it difficult because of experiences they had in the military.

Occupational therapy is one tool to inspire new life in our nation’s veterans, but loved ones play a very important role in the healing process, too. With God’s help, the physical, mental and spiritual aspects of a veteran’s life can change for the better.

Tonya S. Swindell obtained a Bachelor of Science degree in occupational therapy from Medical University of South Carolina in 1997 and a master’s degree in community health education and health promotion from Old Dominion University in 2007. She practices occupational therapy in the mental health department of Hampton VA Medical Center. Email her at