Clinic marks one year helping soldiers transition to civilian life

Transitioning from soldier to civilian after serving in the military isn’t easy. It can be jarring, as numerous challenges arise while navigating through a new way of life.

One recent Penn graduate, who wishes to remain anonymous, says that when she returned from serving abroad in the Army for six years, she knew she needed someone—a therapist—to talk to. Administrators at the Department of Veterans Affairs connected her to Penn Medicine’s Steven A. Cohen Military Clinic.

“I started going there for [several] months, pretty much every week,” she says, adding how convenient the Cohen Clinic’s on-campus location was for her, then a Penn master’s student. “I was able to completely organize my thoughts and make sense of things. It has been the most gratifying, amazing shift in my life.”

That’s not to say she wasn’t wary, at least at first. She had tried therapy multiple times while in the military, but felt it wasn’t working. In addition, she says growing up in a family that stigmatized therapy as something “for crazy people” made her uneasy about seeking assistance for her mental health.

But today, thinking back on her experience, she says she would “100 percent recommend it” to anyone.

“It just gave me so much, and cost me nothing but my time,” she says.

The Cohen Clinic at Penn, at 3535 Market St., opened in September 2016. It is the fifth of its kind in the country, a number that, through the nonprofit Cohen Veterans Network, is expected to grow to at least a dozen by the end of next year.

Cohen, a Wharton School alumnus, hedge fund manager, and Marine Corps father, has pledged three full years of funding to ensure the Clinic at Penn provides no-cost, evidence-based mental health services to all U.S. veterans, including those from the National Guard and Reserves, regardless of their role or discharge status. It also provides support for veterans’ family members.

“During year one, in total, we served 287 veterans and military family members,” says Leah Blain, the Clinic’s director. “Thirty-seven percent of who we saw were family members. Our model is unique because in most other veteran clinics, the only family members who can be engaged are couples who do therapy with their veteran. Here, they can get their own care, so can children.”

As the needs emerged, the Clinic has grown. Now with a team of 15, at least 10 are clinicians, psychiatrists, social workers, or therapists. Instead of regular 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. hours, the Clinic is open two evenings per week until 7 p.m., and offers options for early morning appointments. The Clinic has also started seeing Pennsylvania veterans via telehealth, basically therapy sessions conducted via video conference, a goal of Blain’s since the Clinic’s founding.

“It’s been great to be able to expand our services this way,” she says. “For some with transportation or work schedule challenges, it’s either telehealth or nothing.”

The Cohen Clinic’s training program with Penn students has evolved, too. Working with the School of Social Policy & Practice, there is dedicated funding for stipends for social work interns. Fourth-year psychiatry residents have conducted psychotherapy or medication management, or both, “which is pretty unique,” Blain says.

Next year, she adds, “We would love to have psychology externs as well.”

Describing the Clinic’s first year as “proof of concept,” Blain says she’s beginning to focus on long-term sustainability. In addition to funds from Cohen, the Clinic will be searching for additional support, including philanthropy and possibly third-party reimbursement. 

“No matter what, we are committed to keeping it no cost, or low cost,” she says. “The Cohen Network is committed to be able to serve everyone regardless of their ability to pay.”

Cohen Clinic team