A HopeWay program launched last year helps veterans with PTSD and other mental-health issues.
by Vanessa Infanzon | photographs courtesy HopeWay
U.S. Army veteran Tracy Owens understood she was spiraling out of control when she showed up at Veterans Affairs for a therapy appointment drunk and high. “In March 2021, I drank tequila and [smoked] weed before my session,” says Owens, 56. “My therapist said, ‘If I send you somewhere, will you go?’ And I told her that she needed to send me someplace before I go somewhere I don’t want to go, like the hospital or six feet under.”
Owens’ therapist referred her to HopeWay’s Veterans Program, a residential and day program for men and women who served in the military. HopeWay opened in 2016 as a nonprofit mental health treatment center on a 20-acre campus in south Charlotte.
Since launching in February 2021, 29 veterans have participated in HopeWay’s Veterans Program. About half of referrals to this new program are made by Veterans Affairs. Many are U.S. Army and U.S. Marines veterans, though there’s been representation from every branch of the military. The average age is 44, and several served in Afghanistan and Iraq. Seventy-eight percent are male, and most come from the Carolinas and Georgia, but the program is open to veterans from anywhere in the country. The typical stay is 30 days to six weeks.
Owens, a Chapel Hill resident, joined the Veterans Program in July 2021 as a residential client. The first several days of her 32-day stay were spent detoxing from alcohol and marijuana.
Ross Cole, a therapist in the Veterans Program, saw Owens a few times a week for intensive individual therapy. Even now, she affectionately refers to him as, “the exorcist,” because he compelled her to do the work to get better. He asked difficult questions when exploring Owens’ troubles. “He said, ‘By the time you leave here, you’re going to be thinking differently,’” Owens says. “And I did.”
Many of Owens’ mental-health issues stem from trauma. Fleeing an abusive home, she entered the military seven days after graduating from high school in 1984. The evening she graduated from basic training, she says a sergeant assaulted her. She fought off the attacker and didn’t report it, for fear of ruining her career. Owens remained in the military for 14 years, working in supply and services and as a heavy engineer and parachute rigger. She finished as a staff sergeant.
Almost a year after treatment at HopeWay, Owens continues her sobriety. She’s in a relationship and has a steady job making medical vials for pharmaceutical companies. Triggers from her past still sometimes occur, but she’s relied on strategies she learned at HopeWay to stay calm and not react. “Twice, I’ve looked back at some of the things Ross and I talked about [and used it] to get my negative thinking out,” Owens says.
A holistic approach
Dr. Justin Johnson, a North Carolina native, joined HopeWay in 2020 as the director of veteran services. His experience treating post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injuries, and military and veteran mental-health issues as a board-certified psychiatrist has been valuable in shaping the Veterans Program. Since 2015, Johnson has served in the U.S. Army Reserve, including active duty in the U.S. and a deployment to the Middle East. He’s currently the command psychiatrist for a unit at Fort Bragg, where he advises on mental health issues.
“The general idea was that [HopeWay] wanted to do more to help veterans,” Johnson says. “As many people are aware, veterans have higher suicide rates: About 20 veterans die a day by suicide.”
Veterans participate in group programs alongside HopeWay’s nonveteran clients. HopeWay’s Veterans Program is distinctive because it offers a residential option, includes intensive individual and group therapy, and welcomes all veterans with or without combat experience. VA Salisbury operates a PTSD-focused residential program providing group therapy for combat veterans only. Other nonresidential programs in Atlanta, Boston, Chicago and Los Angeles have a similar approach to treatment as HopeWay.
Once a veteran is admitted into the program, Johnson develops a holistic plan that includes exercise, medication, medical treatment, nutrition, therapies and spiritual counseling. “We work with them to tailor the therapies to that person,” Johnson says. “We are flexible, especially with a person with PTSD. We have to make sure the person agrees with what they’re doing and is motivated to do it.”
A patient’s weekly schedule includes intensive individual therapies multiple times a week, daily group therapy sessions, and integrative therapies such as art, cooking, horticulture and music. Pet therapy and horsemanship programs provide a connection to an animal, Johnson says. “One of the things that help people struggling with mental health is mindfulness activities,” he says. “It’s just you focused on something. All the integrative therapies help with that. You lose yourself with the dog and forget about the struggles you have. You can redirect your thoughts.”
The Veterans Program is built on evidence-based treatments backed by scientific research. For example, prolonged exposure therapy may be used with veterans who develop increased anxiety when they hear fireworks because it reminds them of explosions during combat. “Maybe they avoid going to firework events which leads to problems in their family,” Johnson explains. “Exposure therapy gradually exposes them to loud noises until they basically extinguish or get rid of that nervous response. Then they are more able to participate in family functions and live a full life as opposed to hiding at home.”
Veterans pay with private health insurance, if they have it, or VA covers up to six weeks. Donations through corporations and from individual donors provide financial assistance for patients.
At least once a month, a staff member from HopeWay brings no more than five veterans to Healing Horse Therapy Center in Monroe for a 90-minute horsemanship and wellness program. (Other HopeWay clients participate in equine therapy as well.) Maurette Hanson, a certified therapeutic riding instructor and a certified equine specialist in mental health and learning, founded the nonprofit in 2011.
Hanson starts the group with herd observation: Participants meet the horses, called equine partners, and learn about each one. “Within that time period, [the veterans] are getting a sense of who they would like to match up with,” Hanson says. “Sometimes a horse comes to them and lets them know right away.”
It’s an unmounted program — veterans do not ride the horses — but instead, they learn grooming techniques to use with their equine partner. The focus is on being in nature, building a relationship and trust with a sentient being and discovering how to communicate with a horse, Hanson says.
“What I see over and over again is the confidence that [the veterans] get. They see they can do something they might have been a bit fearful of before.” SP