New veterans’ center offers mental health assistance, with no wait

BOCA RATON — It’s almost impossible for a veteran to imagine: Mental health assistance, immediately.

Someone to talk to. A yoga class. Help finding a job. Friendships.

The Connected Warriors Outpatient Behavioral Health Treatment Center, to be dedicated in Boca Raton on Veterans Day, is set to become a community therapy mecca and gathering place for veterans, desperately needed as lengthy waits for assistance continue to frustrate many seeking help through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. The non-profit will accept payment from veterans’ health insurance companies and also apply for grants and secure donations.

Across the United States, many veterans wait at least a month after they request an appointment for mental health care: The Federal News Network reported an average 41.9 day wait from October 2019 through June 2020. The pandemic aggravated lengthy wait times, as many veterans’ community care centers closed for months or lacked the staff to accommodate those seeking help.

Rose Erickson-Caen, left, instructs Tiffany Kennedy during a yoga class at The Connected Warriors' Behavioral Health Treatment Center in Boca Raton.

Rose Erickson-Caen, left, instructs Tiffany Kennedy during a yoga class at The Connected Warriors’ Behavioral Health Treatment Center in Boca Raton. (Michael Laughlin/Sun Sentinel)

Florida has the third highest number of veterans in the country, with an estimated 1.6 million. The largest contingents served in Vietnam or in peacetime, according to the U.S. Census. More than 20% have a service-connected disability. In South Florida, veterans comprise 2.3% of the population in Miami-Dade, 4.5% in Broward and 5.9% in Palm Beach County.

There are VA clinics throughout the state that assist veterans with medical care and offer mental health services. Wait times for mental health care vary depending on the site. In Deerfield Beach, the wait is only seven days, according to Accesstocare.va.gov. In Delray Beach, it’s 19 days; in Hollywood, 48 days.

That’s too long for those who need assistance quickly. For many, their combat days are long gone, but they still have nightmares, edginess, short fuses and other symptoms of post-traumatic stress.

Army veteran Adriane Reesey of Tamarac said she used to be in that category. She said she was raped in 1986 during her service and later worked for the Broward Sheriff’s Office for 14 years on human trafficking cases.

She decided to try a Connected Warriors yoga class, designed for veterans and their families, in Boca Raton in 2012 after she survived breast cancer treatment and her mother died. She said the classes transformed her.

“It took me a year and a half before I could close my eyes during yoga with the group,” she said. “I would always check the doors to make sure I could get out quickly if I needed to.”

Meditation proved to be her lifeline to calm. She now meditates twice a day for 20 minutes.

Connected Warriors began in 2010 as a free weekly yoga program for veterans in studios in Boca Raton and Fort Lauderdale. Yoga instructor Judy Weaver of Lighthouse Point, the daughter and wife of veterans, began the program after teaching yoga to Beau MacVane, an Army Ranger from Boca Raton who served five tours in the Middle East and suffered from Lou Gehrig’s disease. She saw how the breathing and meditation techniques she taught him remained useful even as his condition deteriorated. He died in 2009 at 33.

Connected Warriors founder Judy Weaver with the Yoga Joe statue at a meet-and-greet reception in Boca Raton.

Connected Warriors founder Judy Weaver with the Yoga Joe statue at a meet-and-greet reception in Boca Raton. (Marci Shatzman/Forum Publishing Group)

Seeing the effect yoga had on Beau, his father, Matt MacVane, a Marine Corps veteran of Vietnam with two Purple Hearts, began attending Connected Warriors classes. He said he remains in a hyper-vigilant state since his service but looks forward to the classes as a way to relax and socialize with fellow veterans.

“I never considered myself a yoga person. I’m built like a Sherman tank,” said MacVane, 76, of Boca Raton. “But when I leave there, I feel better.”

Connected Warriors yoga classes are now in 28 states. As Weaver has learned more about the issues facing veterans, she saw they could benefit not only from shorter wait times for counseling but also from an assortment of therapies not offered in hospitals and clinics, such as meditation, horseback riding, acupuncture, music or swimming.

The Boca Raton center will have six mental health clinicians on site who will offer counseling and link veterans with whatever support services they believe will help them. The center, which will have a computer for veterans to use for job searches and a canteen for hanging out, will accept insurance but also assist those who lack it.

“We won’t turn anyone away,” Weaver said.

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The center will also host clinical trials that seek to confirm the benefits of yoga for veterans. Several studies have already shown yoga improves mental health symptoms for vets with anxiety, chronic back pain and cancer.

“We want to prove we can heal post-traumatic stress,” Weaver said.

The nonprofit organization Connected Warriors helps veterans copes with trauma through yoga. Its headquarters is in Boca Raton.

The nonprofit organization Connected Warriors helps veterans copes with trauma through yoga. Its headquarters is in Boca Raton. (Connected Warriors/Courtesy)

Weaver hopes non-profits that work with South Florida veterans will begin referring patients to the center. She anticipates lots of combat-weary men and women who have experienced traumas and been frustrated by a lack of help.

“We expect a floodgate,” Weaver said. “When we get plugged in, we expect to be fully booked.”

Connected Warriors Outpatient Behavioral Health Treatment Center will have a dedication ceremony on Veterans Day, Nov. 11, with an open house from 4:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. The center is at 21301 Powerline Road, suite 106, Boca Raton. Call 954-278-3764 or email info@connectedwarriors.org.

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