I recently had the opportunity to interview Anthony Hassan, Ed.D, LCSW, President and CEO of Cohen Veteran’s Network, an organization founded with the mission to “strengthen mental health outcomes and complement existing support, with a particular focus on post-traumatic stress.” This is a simple but encompassing statement that sums up Cohen Veterans Network and Dr. Hassan’s passion and drive to provide the resources and outreach that military members and their families desperately need. They are well on their way to doing this, and I recently came across a story that mentioned CVN’s plans to open a no-cost mental health clinic outside of Fort Bragg in Fayetteville, NC. I was impressed by their mission, and reached out to the company’s Anthony Guido, Vice President of Communications & Marketing for the CVN. Mr. Guido agreed to set up the following interview with CEO, Anthony Hassan.

James Powell (JP): Could you tell me a little about Cohen Veterans Network and its mission in your own words?

Anthony Hassan (AH): Sure. First, are you are veteran as well? (after I replied that yes, I am a 10-year Marine Corps veteran) I did 11 years enlisted in the Army and 14 Air Force as a mental health officer and military social worker. The Cohen Veterans Network is a network that will eventually be as big as 25 clinics that will be established across the country to provide free mental health care to veterans and military families. We define a veteran as anyone who has served one day of service regardless of discharge status, and we define a family member as anyone the veteran calls a family member…mother, father, sister, aunt, lover, boyfriend, girlfriend, caregiver…whatever they choose, that person is welcome at our clinic for treatment for themselves or for the family or for the couple

The key to what makes us different is that we are working very hard to reduce all barriers to care, as you know stigma is a big deal. We want the veteran to know that we understand them, and that they can trust us because we are them. Many of our clinics have 70% of the staff made up of veterans or veterans’ spouses, active duty spouses, folks who worked for DoD or the VA. Two, we adhere to confidentiality, three we are free, and lastly if the family is in need of daycare, we can provide that care or help to offset the cost of the daycare. Whatever the issue is, we don’t want that veteran to have an excuse or reason why they can’t come in and get the help they seek. Also, if the person prefers, they are able to get the treatment needed via their home, be it CVN Telehealth or we can go to them as well.

JP: I know that you briefly touched on your military service, but could you talk about that a bit more, as well as how you came to be with CVN?

AH:  No problem. This has been my whole life. I started early, when I was 17 I enlisted in the Army, served 11 years, made E-6. I was commo so I was attached to an artillery and infantry, and my last assignment was in Alaska with the 6th Infantry Division. I got out, then got my Master’s degree in social work so that I could come right back into the Army as a military social worker to help my military brothers and sisters who were challenged. I came back in, but I came back into the Air Force, only because the Air Force recruiter was quicker than the Army recruiter. So, I ended up serving the next 14 years as an Air Force social worker, then got my doctoral degree in higher education and administration, then I went to the war in 2004. I sat on the border of Iraq and Kuwait at Camp Navistar working with truck drivers, 88-Mike’s, and helicopter crew chiefs and help them deal with the issues that they may have had going back and forth on convoys and such.

I retired in ’09, then to the University of Southern California where I built a military social work program, that is today the largest military social work program in the world. I also established a research center there. Mr. Cohen was looking to build this network of clinics, and by the way, Mr. Cohen has invested $275 million to this up front. He decided one of the places he wanted to establish a clinic was Los Angeles, so they met with me, and I feel privileged and very fortunate that he chose me of all people to lead this network of mental health clinics across the country. So that’s how I came to be, and it’s the best job in the world, where I can continue to serve and meet the needs that I know our men and women have. And I want to remind your audience that we are experts in post traumatic stress, we can easily help treat that, but I also want the reader to know that we also are very, very skilled and able to help treat the 80% that come in for depression, anxiety, marital problems, you know, just – life and transition. Most of our patients come in for those things and the other 20 – 25% come in for post traumatic stress, and we want the families to know that we are able and available to help through this transition.


JP: What can you tell us about CVN’s current locations and your current endeavor to bring that same no-cost service to the Fayetteville area?

AH: That’s an excellent question. Right now, we have five clinics open and operating, we have seen over 1000 patients in 2016 alone. We have a clinic in New York, a clinic in Dallas, one in San Antonio, one in Los Angeles and one in Philadelphia. We call those pilot clinics because we have learned a lot in establishing those clinics in the past year. The demand for care is higher than anticipated, and we are seeing about 50 new patients at every one of our clinics each month, so there is a demand, an unmet need that we are addressing. Particularly, when you factor in that 35% of our patients are family members who never would have received care through the VA, because they are ineligible for care via that route, and not to mention that 24% of the veterans are women, and we know that is twice as many women as you would find on active duty, where you would generally see 12 – 14%, so it shows that women are finding our clinics very welcoming. In 2017 we are looking to open about nine clinics, we are looking to open five by summer of 2017. We are opening a clinic in Fayetteville, another clinic in Colorado Springs, in Denver, in El Paso and in Washington DC. The remaining four clinics for 2017 are somewhat up in the air, but I definitely want to be in Nashville, and Clarksville, by Fort Campbell, and we are thinking about Montgomery, Alabama, because there is a huge need there. Then I was thinking about the northwest, either Seattle, near joint base Lewis-McChord, Portland, Oregon which, believe it or not has a huge mental health gap or northern California. So it’s kind of up in the air, but nine by 2017 and I plan to have all 25 clinics built by 2019.


JP: Can you explain to our readers how a no-cost clinic works?

AH: Yep. So right now, it is no cost to come in – it’s free. I just did a presentation in Fayetteville, and believe it or not there was an audience of 120 or so, and who all looked on in utter surprise – they just couldn’t believe it. Down the road, we are looking to accept TRICARE, so those active duty families who want to get care and have TRICARE, we are not going to leave money on the table, because that money can than be turned around and used to open up another clinic. So it’s free, and if you don’t want us to bill your insurance, we are not going to charge. It’s hard for people to believe, sometimes it’s hard even for me to believe, but you can call any of our clinics and they will explain the same thing. We are driven not by revenue but by access, and our major goal here is that you be seen the same day or within seven days – or whenever you want to be seen. People have called up our clinics and asked “What’s the catch? What’s the gimmick?” Well there is no hook, there is no gimmick – Mr. Cohen is generous and wants to make a difference in the lives of veterans and military families and that’s it.


JP: Do these clinics work in conjunction with the on-base providers? Does the member start out on base, then transition over to you?

AH: That is a great question, and this is something that I know you will appreciate. First of all, if you are a veteran, and you are in the community, you are going to be seen. There is no relationship with DoD or the VA unless you want us to have one. If you are a family member and the on-base providers cannot see you, such as in Fayetteville, their clinics are overrun – they need help from the community. So TRICARE refers their patients to off-base providers, and many times they have long waiting lists. With us, when they want to send someone to an off-base provider, they can be sent to us. We have relationships with the VA only when the member wants to us to forward that information. One thing I want you to know is that right now, the board and I have decided that we will not see active duty service members because of the dual role that a clinician must have- to the mission and to the soldiers. So, we don’t want to get in the way of readiness, and we don’t want to jeopardize readiness, because we may have some clinicians who are unwilling to communicate with commands. But we will see veterans, family members, active duty family members, as well as National Guard members who are not on active duty orders.


JP: With the rate of suicides among veterans and family members at alarming rates, will the clinics address this with something like 24-hour hotlines and the like?

AH: No. So our goal is to reduce and eventually eliminate suicides by engaging and being accessible early and reducing the barriers to care. Our goal is to make their lives better. We will have resources in the community and we will use the hotlines that are available as referrals, and we have invested in our clinics the resources to have outreach workers and caseworkers to make sure that veterans get the warm hand off to the organization that they need. We do have relationships with those providers who do these kinds of things and we know what lane we belong in, so we will not be the end-all, be-all.


JP: What types of shortfalls or barriers do you see to veterans and families getting the help that they need?

AH:  Well, I lived some of those things, it was my life. I think the problem that we have is the same as it is in the civilian community – that there is a stigma first of all. I think that accepting help is a challenge. But what we are trying to do at Cohen Veterans Network is to reduce those barriers, to create a trusting environment that’s accessible. I remember specifically that when I saw a special forces or special operator or pilot in my clinic – boy, I knew things were bad, and you had better be ready because that might be the only window of opportunity you had. And that’s why I said earlier that I am driven by access. If I can make sure that I am available to you when you need me, then I have a chance to make a difference. And I think that one of our challenges is that our systems are overloaded, we have providers that don’t have enough time to see patients, and they don’t have enough slots to see patients, and therefore access is a challenge, and that’s why it’s our goal to be available when that person needs us the most. If we can catch that opportunity, we have a great chance of succeeding, but if we miss that opportunity – oh boy. Some very bad things can happen, and we are looking to prevent that.


JP: Last question. What advice would give a service or family member who has questions about mental health issues, whether they are suffering, or a friend, or a loved one – where would they start and what questions should they be asking?

AH: Wow, that is great question. I would just start out by saying to my fellow veterans and family members that it’s OK to get better, it’s OK to be better. Sometimes it’s hard for us to see that going to mental health is an opportunity to be better, it’s not a sign of weakness. It’s an opportunity to be a better father, a better husband, a better wife. It’s an opportunity to be a better person, a better employer or employee. We all could benefit from talking to somebody, and sometimes therapy is complicated and it doesn’t need to be. I remember talking to troops, just hanging out and talking, and it was an opportunity for them to talk about the things that may have been bothering them. I would say come to the Cohen Clinic, because you know that you can trust us. We are going to listen to you. We believe that if we can help the family cope, and deal with what they are going through with their loved one, then maybe their change is going to create the change that will help get the veteran into the clinic. So in a nutshell, I would love to tell the veteran that it’s OK to get better, so why not get better with us at Cohen Veterans Network.


If you are interested in learning more about the Cohen Veterans Network and their work with the military community and mental health issues, go to www.cohenveteransnetwork.org.


Image courtesy of LinkedIn