Ten years ago a judge presiding over a mental health court in Buffalo, New York, called the case of a Vietnam veteran who, to that point, had not been progressing in his treatment or with the help being offered by the court. In a moment of exasperation, the judge asked two veterans on his staff to go out in the hall and talk to him. The three Vietnam veterans met for more than 30 minutes. The next time the judge called the case, the man walked up to the bench, stood at parade rest and held his head high. He told the judge he would try harder and would work with the court and treatment.
This profound experience became the inspiration for what would become the first veterans treatment court, a program connecting veterans in crisis with the benefits and treatment they earned while pairing them with a veteran mentor to provide additional support.
The Trump Administration declared the opioid epidemic a public health emergency. Veterans are particularly affected by this crisis. Fortunately, Michigan is already taking a pro-active approach to ensuring that when veterans with a substance use or mental health disorder are arrested, they have the opportunity for treatment and restoration in a veterans treatment court.
Last week Michigan Supreme Court Justice Bridget McCormack announced more than $1 million in grants to 22 courts statewide to fund the operation of veterans treatment court programs during the next fiscal year. This is yet another example of Michigan’s smart approach to justice and a timely approach to addressing the impact of the opioid crisis among veterans.
The state is now home to 25 veterans treatment courts serving thousands of veterans. During my work with the nonprofit Justice For Vets, an organization that provides training and resources to veterans treatment courts, I have made numerous trips to visit Michigan programs. I have seen the success of these programs firsthand, and the leadership at all levels making it possible. Michigan is model for other states to follow.
Research shows veterans treatment courts improve outcomes for PTSD treatment, and a recent analysis of Michigan courts shows unemployment among Michigan veterans treatment court graduates fell by two-thirds in the last two years. One of the keys to this success is the role of volunteer veteran mentors who assist their fellow veterans while they participate in the program.
There is no bond as strong as the one that exists between those who have served in the Armed Forces. And nowhere is this therapeutic camaraderie more evident than in Michigan’s veterans treatment courts.
Melissa Fitzgerald is senior director at Justice For Vets.