In her last stop during a two-day trip to San Diego County on Saturday, First Lady Jill Biden heard first-hand stories about the stress placed on veterans and military families during a brief visit to an Oceanside mental health clinic.
Sitting at the head of a semi-circle at the Steven A. Cohen Military Family Clinic, Biden often leaned forward as she listened to clients who told her about overcoming depression and other issues, sometimes offering encouragement and congratulating them on progress they have made.
The First Lady also shared her own family’s experience in the military — her late son Beau served in the National Guard and served in Iraq — and reflected on the breaking news that the U.S. military had shot down a Chinese spy balloon that day.
“I felt such a sense of pride,” she said, describing what she called a thoughtful decision by the military to wait until the balloon was over the ocean before shooting it down to avoid endangering civilians. She said it brought to mind that all Americans should support the military in peace and war time, and said she and her husband pray for service members every day at dinner.
Biden recalled a conversation she had with Beau, who had returned from Iraq and suggested that she should focus on mental health as part of the Joining Forces initiative she and Michelle Obama formed in 2011. The initiative provides support for military families, caregivers, and survivors of late service members.
Cohen Veterans Network President and CEO Anthony Hassen told Biden that her story about Beau was similar to a conversation billionaire philanthropist Steven Cohen once had with his son, a Marine.
“He came back from Afghanistan and said the exact same thing your son said,” Hassen recalled. “He said, ‘Dad, if you want to do something more with your philanthropic dollars, invest in mental health.’”
That conversation led to the creation of the Cohen Veterans Network, which has 24 clinics across the country, including two in San Diego County associated with Veterans Village of San Diego.
The clinics have seen more than 50,000 clients and offer therapy at low or no cost to veterans and their families.
Hassen used the opportunity to suggest that the model could be replicated, perhaps to help inner city youth, with help from the federal government.
Two former clinic clients participated in the discussion with Biden, including U.S. Air Force veteran Brittany Livingstone.
“I spent years trying to figure out what was going on with me, why I couldn’t get better on my own,” she said, adding that she had tried several medications, therapists and self-help books.
Livingstone said her own research led her to the Cohen Clinic, which she called an amazing resource more people should know about, and she advised others to not give up in fighting for their own mental health care.
“There must have been something inside of you, some desire for peace or health or something, that made you persevere,” Biden said.
“Thank you,” Livingstone replied. “For me, it was that I knew that if I didn’t get help, I would end up killing myself, and that’s just being real. That’s just where I was at.”
When Biden asked if she had gone back to the base to share her story with others who might need to hear it, Livingstone said it was something she should do, but she had been busy going to school full time with a goal of earning a medical degree to open a family practice or maybe practice psychiatry.
“Good for you!” said Biden, a teacher who holds a doctorate in education. “We need you.”
Shari Finney, regional director of the local clinics, said hosting the first lady was a great honor and a surprise that came about because the Joining Forces initiative had reached out to the clinics.
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