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Opinion: Veterans Helping Veterans — Why Peer Support Should Be Expanded

A familiar face makes a world of difference in caring for veterans

A Veterans Affairs hospital in Phoenix. The department’s peer specialists bring humanity to the care veterans receive, Peters and Coffman write. (Christian Petersen/Getty Images file photo)
A Veterans Affairs hospital in Phoenix. The department’s peer specialists bring humanity to the care veterans receive, Peters and Coffman write. (Christian Petersen/Getty Images file photo)

“You mean it gets better?” a female veteran asks Olga, a certified peer specialist working at the Department of Veterans Affairs. For the last decade, Olga has served as an integral part of the VA’s peer specialist program in Dallas. After going through the dizzying process herself as an Army veteran, she wondered how other veterans experiencing severe mental health episodes were managing to get the care they needed.

Now, Olga spends her time connecting with other veterans to help steer them through the VA’s web of mental health care services. She is part of a workforce of more than 1,100 peer specialists who help veterans in department facilities across the country, including 25 VA primary care sites. This program provides veterans with a trusted guide to navigate the system: a fellow veteran who has gone through the same journey to wellness. Peer specialists supplement traditional care practices, such as counseling or group therapy, and work in patient-aligned care teams to meet the needs of each veteran.

The outcomes are impressive. Veterans who have peer mentors are more likely to keep their VA appointments, access additional treatment methods such as the whole health approach, and meet other important health benchmarks.

An estimated 20 veterans die by suicide each day. Veteran peer specialists can help break down stigma that prevents too many veterans from accessing mental health care.

But this is not just about statistics — it’s about people. Olga has become a fixture in the inpatient facility. Veterans know her story. They seek her out. They trust her. That’s how she and other peer specialists learn about serious health concerns and deeply personal experiences that shape veterans’ interaction with the VA.

A familiar face makes a world of difference in care. Olga once helped a female veteran who came to her and asked for undergarments because hers were taken when she entered the care facility. Olga helped her find some, restoring the veteran’s dignity and becoming a trusted guide in the process.

The Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance, or DBSA, created the first program to train and certify peer specialists employed by the VA, following the direction of a 2012 executive order. With continued input and participation from advocacy organizations, the program has expanded, bringing humanity to the care that veterans receive.

It’s time to bring this personal touch to care across our country — from San Diego, California, to Aurora, Colorado, and beyond. That’s why we worked with a bipartisan coalition in both the House and Senate to double the size of the program by passing the VA MISSION Act, which just became law last week.

This bill is also a sign of the increased interest in individualizing veterans’ care. We should be looking for opportunities to expand peer-delivered services to more locations across the country and for other bipartisan solutions to urgent issues affecting veterans, including homelessness and job retraining opportunities.

To answer that female veteran’s question, “Does it get better?” It can and it will if we expand peer-to-peer counseling to let people like Olga help their fellow veterans through those tough times.

Rep. Scott Peters is a Democrat representing California’s 52nd District, home to seven military installations and the third-largest veteran population in the country. He serves on the House Veterans’ Affairs, and Energy and Commerce committees.

Rep. Mike Coffman is a Republican representing Colorado’s 6th District. An Army and Marine Corps veteran, he serves on the House Armed Services and Veterans’ Affairs committees.

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