Neena, a veteran and single mother, uses a “feeling thermometer” to steady her emotions.

“When I get angry, I look at that thermometer and ask myself, ‘Where is that line going? Why are you angry? What are you angry at?’ I try to go down from the red zone to the green zone; I try to make it turn green really fast. To get there, I usually try to think of happy thoughts about my daughter.”

Neena lives at U.S. VETS-Long Beach, a transitional housing facility located at the Villages at Cabrillo. These days, it’s gotten a lot easier for her to think happy thoughts about her daughter, because they are living together. That was not the case up until six months ago; previously, because of Neena’s drug and alcohol use — which she described as a lifelong attempt at self-medication for bipolar disorder — her daughter was in the foster care system.

“I did not like the family she was put with. I got very mad while we were separated. We are still recovering from the two years we were apart, and I know it took a toll on her. But I said to myself, ‘You gotta do what you gotta do to get your daughter back.’”

Neena credits Families Overcoming Under Stress, or FOCUS — a behavioral health intervention developed at UCLA’s Nathanson Family Resilience Center, a national leader in the realm of family-centered care — with helping her to develop positive coping skills and strengthen her relationship with her daughter.

Now, thanks to a nearly $700,000 three-year grant from the UniHealth Foundation to the UCLA NFRC, therapists and case managers trained in FOCUS strategies will be able to help 40 more female veteran heads of household and their families at two facilities in Long Beach operated by U.S. VETS, the nation’s largest nonprofit provider of comprehensive services for homeless and at-risk veterans. The grant will also benefit 80 female vets and their families at the Blue Butterfly Village in San Pedro, a newly established transitional housing facility for female veterans run by the nonprofit Volunteers of America. Each of these facilities offers housing and supportive services to help female veterans improve their lives.

Since the inception of FOCUS in 2006, its services have been delivered to more than 500,000 service members, spouses, children and community members. In Southern California, FOCUS is used by UCLA Welcome Back Veterans Family Resilience Center and UCLA Operation Mend. UCLA has trained over 2,000 community providers nationwide, including Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health and Los Angeles Unified School District, to help veteran and military families cope and build resilience.

Neena, sober for 530 days and counting, served in the U.S. Army for 15 months. She spent six months in Germany in 1989. “We had M-16s and gas masks, and backed up the line that broke down the Berlin Wall. As soon as the guards realized the U.S. was there, they put their guns down. It was a historic time to be in Berlin,” Neena said.

Much of Neena’s military experience, however, was negative. She was sexually harassed and assaulted by a master sergeant, but reporting the incidents did nothing to improve her situation. After that, she felt forced to leave the Army.

Before coming to Cabrillo and starting in the FOCUS program, she worked odd jobs and abused alcohol and drugs. After being evicted from her home for failing to make rent, she found herself in a shelter in Sun Valley. Her luck changed when a fellow homeless veteran told her about U.S. VETS.

“The female veterans we serve in our ADVANCE program and our Women with Children program come to us with some very complex needs caused by the significant challenges they have faced in their lives,” said Stephen J. Peck, president and CEO of U.S.VETS. “Working with the UCLA Nathanson Center will help our clinicians increase their skills so they can help these female veterans through this difficult period in their lives.”

The initiative funded by the new grant will build on the current mission of the NFRC to support families and youth facing adversity through the development and dissemination of integrated, family-centered behavioral health prevention and care.

“Los Angeles is home to the largest urban concentration of women veterans in the nation,” said Dr. Patricia Lester, director of the UCLA Nathanson Family Resilience Center. “Unfortunately, due to the uniqueness of women’s military experience, existing services are often unable to address the needs of women veterans and their families. This new initiative and our partnership with U.S. VETS and Volunteers of America allow us to extend our family resilience model specifically to women veterans and integrate these services within their current living situation.”

This customized approach, called FOCUS-WV (women veterans), provides a suite of interrelated services designed to support female veterans and their families. These include behavioral health assessments and individual consultations, with psychological education and developmental guidance designed specifically to address the challenges faced by returning women veterans. The program also develops individual and resilience skills such as emotional regulation and problem-solving. The services can be delivered in person or online, so they are accessible to women veterans wherever they live. 

“There is no higher purpose for our collective resource than helping female veterans and their families overcome the challenges that can emerge in the context of civilian life following military service,” said Dr. Jon Sherin, chief medical officer for Volunteers of America. “Volunteers of America is honored to work with this population and humbled by the opportunity that UniHealth has generously afforded us to collaborate as a team with UCLA and U.S. VETS. Through our partnership we will be able to assist these most important members of society in claiming and realizing their right to thrive as individuals and families in dignified communities.”

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