There are currently more than 943,000 veterans living in Pennsylvania — that is the fourth largest statewide veteran population in the country.
And of those, many struggle with mental health.
According to the RAND Center for Military Health Policy Research, about one-third of returning servicemembers report symptoms of mental health or a cognitive condition. And only about half of the returning veteran population who need mental health treatment receive help, according to a study conducted by Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
The statistics are staggering— but two organizations in Philadelphia are hoping to change that.
“There is an extreme need in Philadelphia and in Pennsylvania as a whole for veterans,” said Ron Millward, executive director and founder of the local nonprofit group Balanced Veterans. “Pennsylvania is the fourth largest veteran population in the nation and there’s not a whole lot of real community and education happening.”
Beyond/Hello, a statewide community dispensary chain has partnered with Balanced Veterans to help local veterans through education on alternative medicines. Alternative medicines can encompass a plethora of remedies — anything from medical marijuana to yoga and many things in between. Regardless of the practice, however, the goals are the same — improving health for veterans.
On Tuesday, Feb. 18, the newly formed duo hosted their first public meeting in hopes of spreading their mission throughout Philadelphia. The inaugural meeting was held at Beyond/Hello’s Northern Liberties location and additional meetings have been planned on a monthly basis.
“To see the community come together was amazing. We have started bringing people together in a safe space to learn and promote public health and better quality of life,” said Beyond/Hello’s Colleen McQuade. “Even beyond what happened in the meeting, I think we started something that’s going to continue to grow and develop relations of other community partnerships. I think it’s going to continue to reach out and impact more people.”
The purpose of these events is simple—education and awareness. Each public meeting will focus on individual topics regarding veteran-specific issues. Upcoming meetings will focus on sleep, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and pain.
McQuade explained how veterans in need can seek relief from alternative medicine, specifically medical marijuana. Beyond/Hello— which started in Bristol, Bucks County, and has since added locations in Philadelphia, Johnstown, Scranton and West Chester— aims to educate others on the benefits of medical cannabis.
“Cannabis is part of the toolbelt. There is a lot of usefulness. The patients we work with… I’ve seen life change. People get better. When you can sleep more than an hour, it helps,” said McQuade, who manages Beyond/Hello’s location in Center City. “We have pharmacists at dispensaries that are good at counseling. When a patient comes in, they will have good recommendations on doses, work with medical history and provide a high level of care to them. We have a very knowledgeable staff.”
Medical marijuana was legalized in Pennsylvania in 2016 and two years later, it became available to patients through dispensaries across the state. After a patient is approved by a physician that he/she has a medical condition that requires medical marijuana, you can register in Pennsylvania’s Medical Marijuana Registry, pay for a medical card and then get medical cannabis from a dispensary.
“The most beautiful part of medical marijuana is there are so many different compounds and things the plant can relieve. There’s a lot of studies and documentation to see what can be done,” said Millward. “It’s a very individual journey. We get so many questions that I refer to professionals. It’s really just learning more together, that’s why this is so vital—to have this educational series. Having that healthy community and having that safe space to come together is vital.”
Millward launched Balanced Veterans a little over one year ago with a mission “to create a safe space for the education, empowerment and advocacy of alternative therapies for veterans.” Millward, born and raised in Philadelphia, served in the US Air Force for seven-and-a-half years. He was stationed throughout the country, spending time in Texas, Florida, Washington, and the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia. During his active duty, Millward was deployed to Iraq, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and South Korea.
“I joined the Air Force at 17 with a parental signature. I was deployed to Qatar at 18 years-old and Iraq when I was 20,” said Millward. “I was on pharmaceuticals to combat PTSD. I struggled with pharmaceuticals for about five years during and after the military.”
According to the National Institute of Drug Abuse, 25 percent of veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan suffered from a substance abuse disorder. The organization reports that, “substance abuse among veterans is strongly related to their exposure to combat.”
“We know that it (medical marijuana) is helping get back to a natural state and getting away from pharmaceuticals,” said Millward. “We want to help veterans in need, whatever that may look like— that’s not just cannabis. We really lean heavily on the mental health side of the house, not just using medications. Anything that’s alternative therapy can help.”
Beyond/Hello and Balanced Veterans will host monthly meetings that are free and open to the public to help educate local veterans in need. They will be held at Midnight Iris, 1708 Lombard Street, on the following dates: March 24, April 14 and May 19. All will take place from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m. Veterans are welcome to attend, as well as families, caregivers and friends.
“Together, veterans can see how other people succeed and will have other people they can talk to. Community is everything,” said Millward. “Most people are not getting the help they need. They’re isolated. We get so many family members reaching out asking, ‘How do I get a veteran help?’”
“This is why we’re creating events like this, we’re creating a safe space so people know they are not alone,” added McQuade. “Sometimes that’s the first step of addressing other issues — knowing you’re not by yourself.”