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Silhouettes Profiles Dr. Lynne Santiago

Dr. Lynne Santiago

This article originally appeared in the Sept. 22, 2017 edition of La Gaceta

By: Tiffany Razzano

Growing up, Dr. Lynne Santiago always knew she wanted to help others through work as a counselor.
So the Long Island, New York, native decided to enlist in the Army when she graduated from high school in the early 1980s. In addition to serving her country, she’d be able to utilize the GI Bill to further her education. “I certainly wanted to enjoy the education benefit of [being in the Army], and I used it to fulfill my dream of becoming a psychotherapist,” she said.
Now, through her philanthropic work with Veterans Counseling Veterans INC (VCV) and her private practice, she’s able to bring these two worlds together, assisting veterans at a time when military suicides are on the rise. “I want to proactively help veterans get access to quality mental health care without them having to jump through a lot of hoops and red tape to get it,” Santiago said.
After leaving the Army, she landed in the Tampa Bay area in 1989. She earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology from St. Leo University. She went on to earn a master’s degree in mental health counseling from Nova Southeastern University and, in 2013, fulfilled her lifetime goal of earning a Ph.D. in psychology.
She began her counseling career in 1993, taking a job with hospice and working closely with terminally ill patients and their families. From there, she went on to work for a community mental health agency.
In 2000, Santiago joined a group practice in Tampa run by a clinical sexologist. She added sex therapy to her repertoire as well. After three years, she founded a private practice, working mainly with adults who were dealing with ramifications from childhood trauma, such as neglect or sexual and physical abuse.
“Then in 2008, I began to sharply focus my career on veterans and suicide prevention,” she said.
She remembers, like it was yesterday, watching a news program on the rise of military suicides.
“I could almost tell you exactly where I was sitting,” Santiago said.
The numbers astonished her. “It seemed like almost every day there was another account, another suicide,” she said. “It was heartbreaking. These were like my brothers and sisters. Even if I don’t know them, there is a camaraderie. No matter what branch, no matter what era we served, there’s a sense of family.”
She added, “I felt very helpless and wanted to do something.”
Despite running a private practice, she immediately began looking for jobs where she could work directly with veterans. “I even thought about reenlisting,” she said.
Santiago learned through a friend that the James A. Haley Veterans Hospital was hiring staff to launch its suicide prevention program. So she applied.
Barely two months after viewing that news program about veterans’ suicides, she was sitting in an office at the VA hospital figuring out how to handle her private practice. She worked at the VA for six years, developing programs, outreach and education.
When she returned to her private practice in 2014, she began seeing a variety of clients again. But she also made it easy for veterans to seek mental health treatment with her. She began working closely with a variety of nonprofits dedicated to helping veterans pay for counseling sessions.
She was also appointed COO of the nonprofit organization Veterans Counseling Veterans INC, which was founded by her former intern at the VA hospital, Ellsworth “Tony” Williams.
Williams, who served in the Army on active duty for more than 24 years, received numerous awards for his service. He realized that many of the VA counselors didn’t have military experience of their own. “That was an obstacle for mental health counselors [serving veterans,]” Santiago said. “Many veterans feel that nonveteran [counselors] can’t relate to what they’re going through. Being in the military is its own culture. They even have their own language. They have unique needs and unique experiences.”
Though the VA system has begun offering military-culture training to all employees, Williams created Veterans Counseling Veterans to assist veterans and their families in the mental health profession. “Part of what we do is help veterans who are in training and in school to become counselors,” Santiago said. “So when they graduate they are successful and available in the community to help their fellow brothers and sisters. We’re looking to build a network of veterans who are counselors in the community.”
VCV offers mentorship, peer-to-peer support, educational training on military culture and other assistance.
The organization will host its first-ever fundraiser Sunday, Sept. 24, 3 to 7 p.m., at the Bad Monkey in Ybor City. Entry is free, but the group is hosting a Boot Drive. “We’re asking people to bring new or gently used boots that we will distribute to homeless veterans,” Santiago said.
There will also be entertainment, food and drink specials, as well as a silent auction and raffle items. “It’s just a fun day out in Ybor City to support our warriors,” she said.
It’s taken VCV three years to get to the point where it’s ready to take action, she added. “[The organization] has kind of morphed and changed. Like any organization that’s getting started, we were kind of all over the place,” she said. “We’ve taken the time to narrow things down and be a lot clearer about what our mission and vision are.”
Now the VCV board is focused on taking the organization to the next level – including reaching out to potential community partners and raising money for current and future programs. “Right now, we’re involved with putting together different committees and networking with students and the community,” she said. “We’re hoping to use these funds to start to put together our network of counselors so that we’re able to provide direct services to veterans in the area.”

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