In early September, Penn Medicine opened the nation’s fifth Steven A. Cohen Military Family Clinic. Operating out of a suite at 3535 Market St., the Clinic, backed by Wharton School alumnus Steven A. Cohen, 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.
A space that hopes to break down all accessibility barriers, Penn’s Military Family Clinic is sure to benefit Philadelphia, which, according to U.S. Census data, boasts 70,000 of Pennsylvania’s 1 million military veterans.
“In particular for veterans struggling with something, having access to a resource like this can really alter the course of their lives,” says Leah Blain, the Clinic’s director. “Every day I’m amazed at what people can go through and recover from.”
Blain, who came to Penn’s Military Family Clinic after opening and serving as a director at Chase Brexton Health Care’s Columbia Center in Maryland, says the Cohen Veterans Network’s mission is specifically to serve post-9/11 veterans, with an emphasis on post-traumatic stress disorder. Veterans Affairs statistics have shown that since 2002, nearly 2 million U.S. military personnel have become veterans, with about 58 percent experiencing mental health issues.
Although, Blain insists, the Clinic is not “exclusionary by any means”—it’s open to any and all veterans in need.
Under the leadership of the Clinic’s executive director, Professor of Psychiatry David Oslin, who is also chief of behavioral health at the Corporal Michael J. Crescenz VA Medical Center, Blain manages a team of about 10 clinicians, psychiatrists, social workers, therapists, coordinators, and administrative personnel. She expects her team will serve a few hundred clients at a time.
“Our team is small, but diverse,” Blain says. “Because of that, we can offer case management, standard outpatient therapy, we can see kids as young as 4, families, couples, and adults individually. One of our team members who offers case management and therapy is also bilingual in Spanish.”
The hours of the Clinic are certain to “grow as we grow,” Blain says. Right now, the office is typically open from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. each weekday, but she’s willing to offer evening hours or early morning hours as soon as there’s a need.
Although the services are only presented in-office for now, Blain says one of her main targets for growth within the next few months is to provide satellite treatment options through telehealth, delivering therapy in a virtual environment.
Addressing the Clinic’s commitment to reaching as many veterans as possible, Blain says there’s a plan in place to offer clinic hours at other locations, too.
“We’re working with community partners now to do a needs assessment in the region, and see where there are high densities of folks who don’t currently have access to services in the same way,” Blain says. “That way we can work with either community partners or even other Penn Medicine centers to locate space so we can offer services closer to where veterans are.”
Pete Freudenberger, the Clinic’s outreach coordinator and staff clinician, knows firsthand how important it is to provide support services to military veterans. A disabled veteran himself, he faced having to navigate the system all on his own.
“When I’m working with a service member, it carries a great deal of weight that I’ve had that shared experience,” he says.
And if Penn’s Military Family Clinic is unable to address a veteran’s issue directly—for instance, if he or she doesn’t need mental health care, but could use assistance with clothing, food, or housing—Freudenberger promises to provide vetted resources.
“My hope is that even if the individual doesn’t necessarily need mental health care, we still want them to think of the Clinic for help,” he says. “We’ll never give someone a list of resources with five of the phone numbers disconnected.”
Eventually, the Clinic at Penn will be a site for training students in the Cohen Veterans Network Scholars program, which was previously called PEARLS, or the Program in Mental Health Education Assessment, Recovery, and Leadership for Social Workers. It’s a master’s degree program in the School of Social Policy & Practice, providing specialized training in mental health practice with veterans and their families. In 2014, Freudenberger became the first PEARLS graduate.
“In this specialized program, we were all trained to work with veterans and their family members,” he says. “The fact that staff at our Clinic also received specialized training in military culture makes the services we provide here top-quality.”
This type of excellent care is what Cohen, a hedge fund manager and Marine Corps father, is trying to instill in the Clinics across the country. With a $275 million commitment, Cohen has pledged to open 25 clinics of a similar caliber through his nonprofit Cohen Veterans Network.
“It’s so amazing,” Blain says. “I think some of us are still having a ‘pinch me’ situation that this can really exist.”