August 13, 2019

Terrell State Hospital recently unveiled a 20-bed specialized care unit for Texas veterans, a first of its kind in the state.

The hospital, about 35 miles east of Dallas, is filling a statewide need for inpatient mental health services for Texas veterans committed from the criminal justice system.

The unit’s layout is intended for veteran safety and security. Staff underwent training on military basics, though many of the 51 workers on staff are veterans themselves — a strategic hiring.

“We see a lot of folks with traumatic experiences, and veterans usually tend to be more closed up,” said David Mills, a psychologist at the hospital, which is part of HHSC’s Health and Specialty Care System. “Having a veteran on staff, they are a lot more open. They usually have a shared trust with people who have been there and done that.”

Robert Singletary is one of those people. He’s a peer-support specialist who served in the Army during Operation Desert Storm in the early 1990s. He experienced post-traumatic stress disorder and substance use disorder. Eventually, he decided to seek professional help through recovery programs provided by Veterans Affairs.

After completing rehabilitation and incorporating a 12-step recovery program in his daily routine, Singletary says he understands what it takes to help people in his position turn their life around. His job is to work with the veterans at Terrell to give encouragement and assistance through his experiences to help someone with mental illness or a substance use disorder achieve long-term recovery.

“It’s all about gaining their trust. I approach these veterans in a calm, cool and collected way with three things: my experience, strength and hope,” Singletary said. “I try to connect with them through my similar experiences so they can understand me. I tell them about the strength I gained from going through it, and I share hope as we work toward their recovery.”

Regular group therapies get veterans socializing with one another, and many programs are trauma-focused and address the difficulties they might face when they return to the civilian world, Mills said.

So far, it is a success.

“The patients have talked about how much safer they feel with their own at this unit,” Mills said. “They’re very eager to learn and become involved again. They express how much they appreciate the staff who have also served that they get to work with.”