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Supported Employment for Veterans with Traumatic Brain Injury: Needs and Barriers
Kathleen F. Carlson, MS PhD
VA Portland Health Care System, Portland, OR
Funding Period: January 2014 - December 2014
Approximately 7% of Iraq and Afghanistan War (OEF/OIF/OND) Veterans who use VA services are treated for traumatic brain injury (TBI)-related sequelae each year. Between fiscal years 2010 and 2012, more than 67,000 OEF/OIF/OND Veterans were provided with TBI-related care. TBI of all severity levels, including mild TBI, can lead to chronic symptoms that interfere with daily functioning and contribute to disability. Unemployment rates are high among civilians with TBI and may be even higher among Veterans with TBI given common co-occurring mental and physical health conditions. The VA TBI/Polytrauma System of Care (PSC) was designed to serve Veterans with TBI in need of rehabilitative services. VA program offices are interested in expanding Supported Employment (SE), an evidence-based vocational rehabilitation program, to Veterans with TBI who are treated in the TBI/PSC. Currently, SE is provided VA-wide to Veterans with serious mental illness, but is not systematically available to other clinical populations. SE is intensive relative to other vocational services and may not be the right-sized intervention for all Veterans with TBI who experience employment challenges. There is little information on the needs for or interests in vocational rehabilitation services, or the acceptability of an intensive service like SE, among Veterans with mild versus moderate or severe TBI.
Focusing on OEF/OIF/OND Veterans with mild versus moderate/severe TBI, the aims of this project were to: 1) Quantify unemployment and describe employment challenges; 2) Assess knowledge and use of community and VA vocational services; 3) Examine interest in and acceptability of VA SE to meet Veterans' vocational needs; and 4) Identify perceived facilitators and barriers to accessing and utilizing VA SE services.
This was a 1-year, two-phase mixed-methods pilot study conducted through the VA Portland Health Care System HSR&D Center, in collaboration with VA Central Office partners and investigators from VA Centers in Boston, Minneapolis, and San Diego. In Phase 1, we conducted focus groups and interviews with 37 Veterans in Portland and Boston. Participants were asked to discuss employment difficulties and their knowledge and perceptions of vocational services, focusing primarily on the SE model. Qualitative results were used to modify a survey instrument for use in Phase 2. Prior to its use, the survey instrument was piloted for readability and relevance with six additional OEF/OIF/OND Veterans with TBI history, and revised as needed. In Phase 2, we mailed a survey to 1,800 randomly sampled OEF/OIF/OND Veterans using a modified Dillman approach. The sampling frame included Veterans who were confirmed via a clinician-administered Comprehensive TBI Evaluation to have incurred one or more TBIs during deployment. Veterans with moderate/severe TBI were oversampled. Survey respondents were asked about their employment status, productivity, and barriers to achieving employment goals; their knowledge and past receipt of VA and non-VA vocational services, and interests in future receipt of vocational assistance; and their interest in the SE model as well as perceived barriers and facilitators to accessing and utilizing SE. Standardized measures were used to assess these and other factors of interest (e.g., physical and mental health; functioning; social support) when possible.
Phase 1 focus group/interview participants ranged in age from 24 to 69 years and had varied education levels. The majority (n=34) had a history of mild TBI. Thirteen were employed full or part-time, 6 were unemployed and looking for work, and 10 reported being unable to work. Veterans identified both individual- and contextual-level employment challenges. Symptoms potentially attributable to TBI or comorbid mental health conditions (e.g., post-traumatic stress disorder, sleep problems, pain, and cognitive or emotion regulation issues) were described as individual barriers to productivity. Lack of formal education or civilian work experience, difficulty translating military skills to civilian settings, and encountering stereotypes of Veteran volatility in the workplace were additional barriers to finding or maintaining employment. Veterans' interests in and use of SE services was limited by: 1) An engrained military culture that perceived asking for help as a weakness; 2) Concerns about loss of VA benefits; and 3) Lack of awareness of VA vocational rehabilitation programs.
Phase 2 surveys were returned undeliverable for 349 Veterans. Among the remainder of the sample, 614 Veterans (42%) returned completed surveys, including 388 with a history of mild TBI and n=226 with moderate/severe TBI history. Among respondents with a history of mild versus moderate/severe TBI, 43% and 51% were not working in a paying job, respectively; of these, 34% and 22% were actively looking for work. Few respondents (n<10) reported they had used SE; only 15% and 20% of those with mild versus moderate/severe TBI, respectively, had heard of SE. After reading a description of SE, 40% and 45% of those with a history of mild versus moderate/severe TBI reported they would be moderately interested or very interested in the program if it were offered to them. Approximately one-half of respondents reported they would be likely to try SE if it were recommended to them by their medical provider, mental health provider, or case manager/social worker; proportions were similar (~50%) regardless of provider type or respondents' TBI severity.
Employment challenges among OEF/OIF/OND Veterans with a history of TBI appear to be significant. Although many would be interested in utilizing SE, few have heard of the program. Ensuring that Veterans with TBI can access SE or other effective vocational rehabilitation services may help prevent downstream health and functional problems. Knowledge from this project will be used to inform VA efforts to expand SE to this population. Subsequent research is needed to identify factors associated with referral to, retention in, and successful outcomes from vocational rehabilitation and, in particular, SE services among Veterans in the VA TBI/PSC.
External Links for this Project
NIH ReporterGrant Number: I21HX001366-01
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DRA: Brain and Spinal Cord Injuries and Disorders
MeSH Terms: none