The Brain At War

This past week, I was honored to sit alongside our nation’s military leaders and top researchers who are fighting to change a system that has been plagued by bureaucracy vs. its mission to serve our military personnel with the highest level of integrity and care.

Lessons Learned: Department of Veterans Affairs, The Veterans Health Research Institute, and Private Partners via 2015 Brain at War Conference.

We Must Change Our Culture

War has real consequences which most civilians do not see as they live peaceful lives due to the protection our soldiers and first responders afford them on a daily basis. While our uniforms make us look heroic, we do our jobs and do not talk about the physical or mental scars that will last a lifetime, bringing some to the grave sooner than others. We look forward to retiring from serving honorably and could not fathom a career in the private sector where service isn’t above self, i.e. profit over integrity. 

10 years ago, 90% of our military said they would not receive help for PTSD or counseling because they feared losing their jobs. 10 years later, 50% or 500,000 troops are still silent. While numbers show more are receptive to receiving help for PTSD, the culture has to change

You might be saying, well I am not a Veteran or first responder, so why does this impact me? Many Americans commit suicide as a result of PTSD from childhood experiences that lead into untreated mental illness, etc. And, while our Veterans are tackling tough issues and driving change, the average human resources teams in America are not prepared to have real conversations, yet provide their employees suffering from PTSD with the highest level of care utilizing the Department of Veterans Affairs gold standards, including: integrated care, wellness programs, diet guidelines, yoga over pills, supporting time off for preventative counseling while keeping people employed, peer counselors to check-in during disability claims in hopes of returning the employee back to work, and creating a culture of acceptance from four star generals to line managers. While LinkedIn is plagued by fluffy leadership posts, leadership is now, it is real, and it starts with you being a voice for the 90% who are too afraid to come forward out of fear. 

At a recent Bay Area Council committee meeting on healthcare, Dr. Hernandez spoke and shared with our small group that the cost of untreated mental health to the American economy is $100 Billion, in California it is $20 Billion. And while we have advanced technologies to recognize symptoms of undiagnosed mental issues, stigma prohibits progress

“We’ve been playing catch-up on issues. How do we get to a point where we are prepared?” General George Casey.


All Americans benefit from the Department of Veterans Affairs given the VA’s three pillars: 1. Research 2. Education and 3. Clinical Care. While you might question the quality of the VA, under new leadership, the VA has gone on to receive the highest patient satisfaction surveys out of any healthcare provider in the nation. Furthermore, the VA has received three Nobel Prizes and seven Lasker Awards for their research. Unequivocally, the VA is the leader in holistic mental health care for our nation.


Matthew Collier, head of Strategic Partnerships for the VA, described change as: “Disruptive, messy, and not easy.” In the tech boom, every entrepreneur is set out to develop the latest disruptive technology, displacing the status quo with something new, edgy, unproven, and backed by grit, heart, and advancements off of past best practices. 

Disruptive change occurs every time we speak of PTSD, every time we recognize a suicide and do not label the person as “selfish,” every time we speak in front of an audience of 1 or more people who will listen and take these lessons home to make their workplace a place free of judgment, a place where people can be their authentic self, and a place that will support their employees who spend the majority of their life as human capital to ensure the doors stay open and shareholders are satisfied with their returns. 

Not everyone makes it full circle like I did as a business leader. Six months into being faced with a permanent disability I received a phone call…_______________committed suicide. The next week, I received a phone call from fire department admin asking if I was o.k. I proceeded to tell the officer calling me, with all due respect, this phone call should have come the first week I was off on disability to check-in on me and that this was the most disingenuous phone call I’ve ever received because it was coming from a reactive policy over a progressive policy. While you might believe in the imagery of brotherhood, our nation’s fire, police, and emergency medical services departments have a long way to go in order to catch-up to where the VA stands. 

Let’s take it back closer to home, the successful CEO. I remember a girlfriend coming home in tears telling me about her father’s friend who was a multi-millionaire, losing everything over a bad stock decision, taking his life. I remember growing up in a house next to a man who made America laugh, Robin Williams, or Mr. Williams to me as a child. I remember going on a suicide Thanksgiving day to find a boyfriend holding his girlfriend who was depressed a few weeks back… 

In my lifetime, I want to remember a time where companies fought for change to implement the best wellness programs, including ones that supported their employee’s mental health more than offering an "EAP program" of underqualified practitioners, programs with limited benefits, and companies who dropped people during tough times out of fear vs. proactively managing the success of their employment. We’ve come a long way from when my grandfather, a Battle of the Bulge Veteran, formed his “support group” with my father who lost his friend’s to war as a child in Europe, never speaking of their traumas outside of this arena. We still have a long way to go in order to care for those who serve, to create transformational employment models to return individuals who possess all five characteristics of leadership to leadership roles in the private sector, and to minimize the financial impact of untreated mental health on the American economy so that we can put this money towards positive things aimed for change, progress, making America the world leader in total wellness and employee satisfaction. 

Time for a Check-up: Calling All Leaders for a Check-In This Week

If your organization hires disabled persons and Veterans, what tools and culture do you have to ensure their success? If you get a tax credit, what do they get?How effective is your EAP program and its network providers? Do you have providers who are certified in EMDR and the latest PTSD methods? FYI, a standard MFT will not do your people any good when treating PTSD and is a waste of their time when seeking help and a waste of your time paying for a “program” that doesn’t work. Do you think the standard of 10 visits is enough coverage to treat your employees during times of mental stress?How do you monitor people when they are off on disability? Do you threaten them by surveillance or do you proactively work with them to know what is going on? Do you have a network of leading physicians who believe in integrated care over prescriptions?When was the last suicide that touched your organization? Did you see it coming? If so, why did you not speak up, what lessons were learned, and how will you drive a culture of awareness and openness on this taboo topic?Who are you bringing in to your organization to speak and drive change? If you can’t do it, there are people like myself and others in my network who will prove to your organization that you can create a winning culture, that you can see better return to work outcomes by being a little “touchy feely,” and show you how to develop a holistic people culture that ensures the highest standards for physical and mental wellbeing. 

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© 2019 by Drew Aversa