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Kensington coffee club helps veterans connect, alleviates loneliness

Three days every week, the veterans of Hancock Manor gather for coffee around a table in the house’s main space, which used to be the building’s gymnasium when it was still the YMCA.

It’s a makeshift arrangement; there’s usually a coffee carafe or pot, mismatched paper cups, and sweetener packets — whatever they can find. At the center of the table is an empty coffee can, where the vets drop dollars or change to buy more supplies.  

“Coffee club got us to talk again,” said Richard Brown, a Vietnam veteran and Hancock Manor resident. “It got us to laugh again.”

The coffee club meets every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday from 7AM to 9AM at the veterans housing facility, which is run by Impact Services. Usually, it draws a crowd of between six to eight veterans, though previously, the room used to be full. Now there are concerns — due to what veterans feel is a lack of participation encouragement and outside assistance — about the veteran-run program slowly slipping away. 

Veteran Larry Wyatt drinks coffee during the veteran-run coffee club at the Hancock Manor veterans’ housing facility on January 20, 2020. (Photo by Erin Blewett)

How loneliness poses a major threat to veteran health

Research has shown that veterans experience loneliness and social isolation uniquely compared to the nonmilitary population. Additionally, according to a 2014 VA study, Vietnam era veterans — which make up nearly 40% of the total American veteran population — are twice as likely as World War II or Korean War Veterans to experience elevated depression and anxiety. 

“When our veterans — or anyone who has a health condition, really — is lonely and disconnected, that poses a risk to their health in the short-term and long-term,” said Dr. Alan Teo, a researcher and psychiatrist. “We really shouldn’t be waiting for a person to become a patient.” 

Teo, who works as a researcher at the Center to Improve Veteran Involvement in Care (CIVIC) and psychiatrist at the VA Portland Health Care System, often sees the effects of veterans’ deep-seated traumas at his job. 

In 2018, he surveyed over 301 veterans with Dr. Somnath Saha, asking them to describe their relationships and day-to-day life. Their goal was to see how their social connections with others affects their overall health.

Veteran John Tomys drinks coffee during the veteran-run coffee club at the Hancock Manor veterans’ housing facility on January 20, 2020. (Photo by Erin Blewett)

The study found that the quality of a veteran’s social connections to their friends and family, community, and society play a key role in regards to the loneliness they feel, which can then lead to depression. Teo argues that if veterans experience high-quality social connections to others around them and their community, they would experience less mental and physical health issues in the long run.

“Social connectedness is the ways that people are connected with each other and that can occur on a person-to-person level,” Teo said. “But it can also occur at the community level, and even society at large.”

Another element of the study looked at how veterans are diagnosed with depression. Often veterans see a primary care doctor when seeking medical treatment. This can lead to a diagnosis of depression when patients are only experiencing the symptoms of loneliness, says Teo, which could lead to treatment patients don’t need.

“Loneliness is your own perception that your social relationships don’t live up to what you think they should be,” he said. “Depression is much more defined by critical symptoms. There’s overlap, but there’s an important distinction.”

He also cautions care providers about veterans who appear to be surrounded by family and friends, but may actually be experiencing loneliness. This other end of the spectrum can be just as dangerous, he said. 

“You may have someone who on the surface looks like they shouldn’t be lonely,” Teo said. “They might have a big family, but again, they may not feel closely connected to them,” Teo said.

Instead of treating veterans for depression, doctors may opt to treat veterans for loneliness with suggested outdoor activities, or what Teo suggested to one of his patients: a Portland-based veterans fly fishing club.

“The thing that I try and think about is identifying what their interests are,” Teo said. “Then looking at ways to have them engage in those activities with a social twist to it.”

Veteran William Clack pours coffee during the veteran-run coffee club at the Hancock Manor veterans’ housing facility on January 20, 2020. (Photo by Erin Blewett)

A grassroots effort’s impact 

When Shannon Drake first noticed veterans washing their socks in the sink just so they could wear them, she decided to step in. 

“How are you going to help someone get their life together, if they don’t even have clean socks?” Drake said.

Drake, the daughter of a Vietnam War veteran, began bringing the veterans socks and toiletries. That practice quickly evolved into the Thank-A-Vet program, which provides resources like sock donations, but also a coffee club where residents could talk about their trauma with peers.  

“Veteran Coffee Club was mostly veteran-created, and is a suicide prevention program,” said Drake, who previously worked as a caseworker at Impact Services. “This is now one of seven coffee clubs in Philadelphia — it really is a grassroots effort.”

Veterans play cards at the veterans’ coffee club at Hancock Manor on December 9, 2019. (Photo by Erin Blewett)

Though Drake has since left Impact to pursue her work with Thank-A-Vet, she still drops by the coffee club to distribute donations and reminisce. 

“How much fun did we have?” Drake asked the group at coffee club in early January.

“We had loads of fun every day,” Wyatt said. 

According to Brown, the coffee club has helped him learn how to share his emotions with others and confront his traumas. 

“A lot of vets ain’t going to let you know,” said Brown. “Mrs. Drake, she was seeing things in us that we didn’t see. So she created this coffee club to help us get things out.”

At 66, Brown says his experiences in Vietnam are still with him today.

“All those moments from war, you suppress it,” said Brown. “Then next thing you know, you hear about so-and-so passing away, and you think, ‘Well he didn’t show me any signs.'”

Editor: Jillian Bauer-Reese / Story Designer: Jillian Bauer-Reese / Translator: Diana Cristancho