Thanks to a $700,000 grant from the Bristol Meyers Squibb Foundation, the Connecticut Veterans Legal Center and the New York Legal Assistance Group are spearheading a two-year study to monitor 400 veterans and their legal experiences in West Haven and Newington, Connecticut, as well as in two locations in New York City. Although there are other facilities that offer part-time or free legal assistance to veterans, there has not previously been a study done to determine the long-term benefit of the services.
The Connecticut Veterans Legal Center, which is located within a VA community mental health facility, is a legal services organization that provides assistance to veterans looking for housing or mental health services. The legal aid is free because the CVLC has a number of lawyers who volunteer to help the veterans.
One of the main concerns of the CVLC is the stress that accompanies legal experiences, which, in the case of mentally ill veterans, can be overwhelming and unbearable. “Legal matters are intensely stressful,” said Margaret Middleton, the CVLC’s executive director. “Facing debt collection or getting divorced or contemplating bankruptcy are huge stressors for veterans or any of us, so what we hope to get out of the study is to demonstrate that legal help is really an essential part of a veteran achieving positive mental health and well-being outcomes.”
Aside from mental illness, financial woes and homelessness, veterans also struggle with a variety of other health afflictions due to their service. Exposure to toxins, such as Agent Orange and asbestos, during service can contribute to long lasting health complications. For example, asbestos exposure can lead to mesothelioma cancer, a rare and aggressive cancer that affects the lining of the lungs. Many veterans were exposed to asbestos while serving, as the material was used prominently in a variety of industries until its ban in the 1970s. In fact, as much as 1/3 of individuals diagnosed with mesothelioma served in the United States Navy.
The study will focus on veterans with mental health problems and housing needs, and the hope is that the outcome will inspire more free legal services for veterans in VA facilities around the country.