Elisa Borah, Ph.D., is the director of the Institute for Military and Veteran Family Wellness, a collaboration between Dell Medical School and the Steve Hicks School of Social Work at The University of Texas at Austin. She is also courtesy associate research professor in Dell Med’s Department of Health Social Work and a research associate professor at the Steve Hicks School. Borah’s research focuses on crucial support systems for military families and veterans.
What’s the problem you’re trying to solve and how did you come to recognize it?
Health care often focuses on deficits, looking to pinpoint problems rather than ways to prevent those problems from ever surfacing. I seek to identify, develop, test and implement support systems that can prevent the development or continuation of chronic mental health problems in military-connected individuals.
Social networks are a needed support system for individuals on their health care journey and are crucial for the optimal health of military service members, partners and veterans, as well as the lives of families who undergo the often-challenging transition from military to civilian life.
I’m a veteran spouse myself, and although I did not face significant challenges, I understand the lifestyle that military families navigate. As a researcher at Fort Hood, I saw the obstacles that they face to obtain support for challenges they endure — from mental health to physical conditions and beyond. Now, working in the veteran community, I see the ongoing need for effective health care access and social support.
What needs to happen in order to create these networks of support?
Across the nation, we need to rethink health and wellness in order to support resiliency. This involves strengthening workplace, family and community relationships so that individuals do not feel isolated when facing hardships.
We also must continue to combat the stigma of mental illness that so many in our military face which prevents them from seeking care. Family members of veterans deserve far more support than they currently receive when the service member leaves military service. By strengthening support for veteran family members, veterans benefit as well.
How does your research address this need for support?
My team and I evaluate effective social support interventions for partners of veterans, veteran couples and families transitioning from military to civilian life. This transition is a point at which many challenges arise. With sufficient support, veteran families can achieve short- and long-term positive outcomes.
We also focus on how to engage veterans’ friends and family members in veteran suicide prevention research and practice — as well as getting concerned significant others involved in medical care so that veterans have a trusted navigator to lean on during unfamiliar health care situations.
The New York Times asks readers to tell their “Tiny Love Stories” in just 100 words. What’s yours?
Asking people what they need is one of the most powerful things that health care providers and researchers can do.
Over six years ago, I conducted focus groups around Texas to understand perceptions about a peer support program for veterans. Many veteran family members and spouses attended the sessions and were vocal about the fact that they needed peer support, too.
This sentiment inspired my first large grant and led to the creation of the Institute for Military and Veteran Family Wellness. Our success depends on participants’ voices to design the best support systems to address the needs of the entire veteran family.