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18-year-old conquers despair through therapeutic intervention at Unified Behavioral Health Center

From left: Charles Taylor of Northwell's Office of Military and Veterans Liaison Services; Alyssa Harper, 18; and Dr. Mayer Bellehsen, Director of the United Behavioral Health Center in Bay Shore.
From left: Charles Taylor of Northwell's Office of Military and Veterans Liaison Services; Alyssa Harper, 18; and Dr. Mayer Bellehsen, Director of the United Behavioral Health Center in Bay Shore.

An outsider at school, challenging home life led to "broken" feeling

NEW HYDE PARK, NY —

It’s been a long journey to serenity for Alyssa Harper, 18, of Ronkonkoma, NY. After a lifetime of changing schools and adapting to new locations as a result of being the perennial “new kid” as a child of the military, Ms. Harper’s struggles came to a head just one year ago. In February 2018, she began hurting herself on several occasions because, in her mind, she was “broken.”

“I started my 13th school when we moved to New York a few years ago,” said Ms. Harper. “Always being the new kid, the pressures of that, along with living with a parent who has PTSD as a result of his military service, it’s all terrifying. It’s not easy seeing your parent fall apart like that – it takes its toll.”

The man she refers to as her father (currently stationed out-of-state) was an Army artillery specialist who was deployed to Afghanistan. When he came home in 2012, the family was based in North Carolina. By then, Ms. Harper was starting to notice a change. As often happens to veterans who return home, her father became angry and was sometimes verbally abusive. The home was no longer a refuge.

Ms. Harper enjoyed the small-town lifestyle of North Carolina. Unfortunately, her father was once again ordered to ship out – this time to New York. Ms. Harper left the home she had come to love and arrived on Long Island as an eighth grader. In her new school, she was the outsider – bullied and ridiculed – for her upbringing, her appearance, for her interest in the arts and for just being different.

Repeated attempts to hurt herself brought Ms. Harper to the point of becoming an inpatient in a Long Island behavioral health facility. Following that brief stay, she found her way to the Unified Behavioral Health Center in Bay Shore.

Unified Behavioral Health Center helps the entire family

Founded in 2012, the Center is a one-of-a-kind collaborative effort between Northwell and the Northport VA to evaluate and treat military personnel and their family members. Under one roof, Northwell provides behavioral health services to families affected by the military service of a member while the Northport Veterans Administration Medical Center operates an outpatient clinic for veterans.

“In military life, there are several possible traumas that affect not only the veteran, but their family members,” said Mayer Bellehsen, PhD, director, Unified Behavioral Health Center. Such issues as the transition and challenges of relocation, constant moving, the transition back to civilian life, the fear and loneliness that children experience as the result of a parent’s deployment – these are all factors that could cause a family member to feel depressed and/or anxious.

Dr. Bellehsen described a type of “secondary PTSD” experienced by the children of veterans with similar symptoms to the disorder such as hyper-vigilance or the feeling of “walking on eggshells” all the time.

“In other words, PTSD not only affects the individual, but the entire family,” said Dr. Bellehsen. “That’s the mission of our Center and why the Northport VA and Northwell Health decided to join forces. Veterans who come to our facility walk through a door on the right to be seen by VA clinicians; their family goes through the door on the left to be seen by Northwell clinicians. We often all meet together to decide on a course of treatment for the family.

“The most important thing to remember here is that when members of the military serve, they don’t serve alone...the family serves, as well. Understanding this is important for the future of our nation as our veterans return from battle and try to readjust to life at home,” he said.

Do not suffer alone

For her part, after a year of therapy and self-introspection, Ms. Harper is filled with hope about her future. She will graduate from high school in June and is eager to begin her studies in sociology at Arizona State University in the fall.

“I just want other kids out there like me – those who are different and feel alone – to know that there is hope if you reach out to get help,” said Ms. Harper. “It’s important for people to understand that we don’t really want to end our lives, we just want the pain of that part of our lives to stop.”

Eloquent and serene, Ms. Harper concluded her message with this thought: “I’m happy about the fact that I’m not angry. I don’t like grudges. Staying angry has a negative effect on your mental health…it’s just not productive.”

Ms. Harper and her family will be lending their support to Northwell’s first “Side by Side” event to honor military service. Set to take place in Manhattan over Memorial Day Weekend, the two-part event will take place on May 25. During the day, visitors will enjoy a fun-filled day of musical performances, military exhibits, and much more at Rockefeller Center. Later than evening, multi-platinum pop-rock band Imagine Dragons will play Radio City Music Hall, with a portion of proceeds earmarked for the health system’s military initiatives.

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