Helping post-9/11 veterans heal hidden wounds, a new way

Jonathan Kaupanger
July 10, 2018 - 2:16 pm

Photo by Headstrong


What do you get when you take mental healthcare and combine it with the concept behind Air B&B?  You get immediate access to world class mental healthcare without paperwork or bureaucracy.

It’s called Headstrong, and is a free mental health referral service for post 9/11 veterans.

Headstrong co-founder Zach Iscol, a former combat Marine who fought at the Second Battle of Fallujah, was out of the military and working on his civilian career when one day he met up with his former commanders.  They told him that more Marines were losing their lives to suicide than the number who died in his battalion during the war.  Why were his Marines killing themselves at such a staggering rate?   He had to do something, but what?

Iscol knew he wanted a non-governmental setting for veterans, specifically something for those who didn’t want to go to the VA for whatever reason.  “How do they create, and I’m saying this with the full respect of the VA, how do they create the anti-VA?” said Headstrong’s Director of Operations Dustin Shryock. 

A longtime family friend of Iscol’s just happened to be an addiction psychiatrist.  Working together with leading experts in trauma therapy at Weill Cornell School of Medicine, they developed the most comprehensive treatment they could think of for an outpatient, private trauma clinic. 

Confidentiality is key for Headstrong. 

Veterans fill out a short form on the website that includes name, email and a note if you want to add that.   Within 48 hours, an intake clinician contacts the veteran.  This is also used as a screening measure to make sure no one is lying about being in the service.  “We’ve done over 600 clients to date,” said Shryock.  “And not once have we had someone lie about being in the service.  Maybe it will happen someday, but the idea is we don’t take money from the federal government, so we don’t have to show them a person’s paperwork.”

The care is provided by partners and clinicians that have been vetted by Headstrong.  They are “world-class clinicians that I myself would want to go sit in front of,” says Shryock.    Before working at Headstrong, he was a client.  So when looking for partners or mental health providers there are two questions he asks, “Who do I want to put my best friend in front of, and who would I want to go back and sit in front of.”

The clinicians at Headstrong are military competent and have been in practice, with a focus on trauma for at least 10 years before Headstrong will consider partnering with them. Headstrong and VA use two different methods of therapy.  Headstrong practices Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, or EMDR.  “VA uses Prolonged Exposure, in general, it’s quicker,” said Shryock.  “We just feel it’s more traumatizing.  EMDR takes a little longer, but we feel it’s a little gentler.” 

The partners picked by Headstrong practice adjunctive therapy which is prescribed in addition to the primary therapy to help maximize its effectiveness. For example, if a client presents with post-traumatic stress (PTS) symptoms, but the doctor diagnoses a traumatic brain injury (TBI), they’ll go to a TBI clinic to treat that injury first. 

There’s a wide range of partner organizations Headstrong uses, “Sometimes it’s a VA hospital visit,” said Shryock.  “Sometimes it’s a retreat out in the woods.  We have partners that do equine therapy, running groups.  You name it, we’ve referred someone to it.”

Already in 21 cities across 10 states and Washington, D.C., Headstrong is expanding.  They already have partners in place in Virginia Beach and will start accepting clients in that area in the next four weeks.

“It’s free and as long as someone wants to get help here, they can get it,” said Shryock.  “We’re big supporters of the VA.  We’re certainly not out there trying to dup services.  I think we’re a neat model that simply lends a helping hand to our partners across the country that are doing the good work that the VA is doing.”

If you need help, contact Headstrong here.

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