Eric VanDerMolen was recently honored as the South Central VA Health Care Network Peer Support Specialist of the Year during the 6th Annual Global Peer Support Celebration Day. He has worked for the Gulf Coast Veterans Health Care System for five years, including at the Homeless Veterans Program at the Eglin VA Community-based Outpatient Clinic (CBOC).

“I was a patient at Gulf Coast VA before I was an employee,” the Navy Veteran said. In the photo above, VanDerMolen – a recovery peer support specialist who is Veteran certified by the state of Florida – teaches a class in 2019.

“I needed help and VA’s Behavioral Health Department was there for me, more than once.”

In 2015, VanDerMolen began working at the Gulf Coast VA Joint Ambulatory Care Center in Pensacola, Florida. The next year, he became a Florida Recovery Peer Support Specialist-Veteran. The assignment was the result of his work at the Harbor House Men’s Recovery Home. He says his journey prepared him for the job he now holds.

His attitude and ability set the standard

“I was taught recovery involves passing on what was given to me,” he said.

VanDerMolen, who is currently working on a degree in social work and plans to pursue a master’s degree, has found passion for peer support. “It’s something I enjoy,” he said. “And making a difference in another Veteran’s life is something of which I’m grateful to be a part.”

Peer support represents a unique health care profession within VA. It uses the personally lived experiences of employees to deliver peer support services to fellow Veterans. The expertise of peer specialists comes from their experiences of successfully overcoming challenges with their health and wellness resulting in them now living a meaningful, purposeful life in recovery.

“Eric was hired as a peer support specialist a few weeks before Hurricane Michael devastated areas in Panama City,” said Jodie Picciano-Swanson, the Gulf Coast VA’s Homeless Program manager. “He immediately volunteered to assist, spending hours visiting shelters throughout several counties and at the command center. He was focusing on rehousing efforts and helping Veterans – some of whom were newly homeless – cope with significant loss. His attitude and ability to form meaningful relationships with Veterans sets the standard for what we’re accomplishing here.”

Understands challenges Veterans are experiencing

“Adding peer specialists’ perspectives as part of VA interdisciplinary health care service teams is critical,” said Patricia Sweeney, the national director of the Office of Mental Health and Suicide Prevention. “Peer specialists have insights to the Veterans’ experiences of military service. They understand adjustment to post-military life and health challenges that Veterans are experiencing.”

In addition to facilitating a weekly Peer Support Recovery Group, VanDerMolen also works with community partners, landlords and property managers. Together, they assist Veterans in obtaining affordable housing in Okaloosa and Walton Counties in Florida.

Locates Veterans who are out of touch

He also assists Veterans in completing Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) applications, locates Veterans who have fallen out of touch with case managers, and administers “Taking Charge of My Health, My Life” groups as part of the Gulf Coast VA’s Office of Patient Centered Care’s Whole Health Program.

“I assist Veterans one-on-one with identifying recovery goals, whether from mental disorders, substance use, homelessness or other issues they might face,” VanDerMolen said. “I’m able to use my own experience within the VA system and community recovery networks to assist fellow Veterans any way I can. It’s my honor to help these men and women who chose to serve their country.”

There are nearly 1,200 peer specialists working at VA facilities. They work in outpatient, inpatient and residential mental health and addiction treatment programs. Also, Mental Health Intensive Case Management Programs, Psychosocial Rehabilitation and Recovery Centers, vocational rehabilitation services, primary care settings and homelessness programs.

VA’s Peer Support Services Program reaches many vulnerable Veterans who have the greatest need for mental health services, including those who are at higher risk for suicide.

Bruce Cummins is a public affairs specialist for Gulf Coast Veterans Health Care.

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Published on Nov. 4, 2020

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