Veteran army medic, PhD student in global health works to help the homeless population

November 7, 2022

Editor’s note: This story is part of our coverage of Salute to Service from November 1-11. Learn about the schedule of events.

As a medic in the United States Army, Richard Southey was trained to handle medical emergencies that many civilian doctors may never encounter. However, his work with mental health, trauma and PTSD has brought him the greatest satisfaction.

Richard Southey holds a master’s degree in linguistics from Arizona State University. Photo courtesy of Richard Southee
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Army medic with higher education

Southey didn’t do well his freshman year at Sierra Vista Community College in Arizona, so he joined the Army. He originally planned to work in army intelligence, but ended up enlisting as a medic, which would change the course of his life.

“Going from community college dropout to the military forces you to work in a high-stress environment to manage stress differently and be focused,” Southey said. “I became very focused and focused because of military.”

He went through basic training and was stationed at Fort Hood in Texas with the 69th ADA (Air Defense Artillery). Twhen he was stationed in Bahrain for nine months.

“As a medic, my role was to support that unit,” Southee said. “A lot of the work I was doing was not only in general health care, but also in mental health care. We had a lot of older soldiers dealing with PTSDwho were dealing with the consequences of being in the military for so long.

After the service, Southey began taking pre-med courses as an undergraduate at the University of Arizona, but eventually found his passion in linguistics and the Arabic language.

Immediately after Southey completed his undergraduate degree, he began his master’s degree in linguistics at Arizona State University. Southee was inspired by the work of the associate professor Matthew Prior worked as a discourse analyst in the ASU English Department. While working under Prior for his master’s program, Southee also worked at ASU Pat Tillman Veterans Center.

Southee’s master’s thesis measured the cognitive burden of PTSD in veterans using speech patterns, Southee explained. He measures severity by interviewing veterans and noting how many pauses there are in each interview. Southee explained that the pause happens when your brain is working hard, and PTSD is a job for your brain.

“My theory was that the worse the PTSD, the more work their brain was doing,” Southey said. “So the harder it is, the worse the PTSD, and they’ll have a higher frequency of pausing in their speech.”

Due to COVID-19, Southey wasn’t able to get as much data as he had hoped, but his pilot study proved his theory correct. While working on his master’s degree, Southey met a linguistic anthropologist Cindy Sturtz Sritharan, who encouraged him to apply to doctoral programs that could incorporate his work in health care, linguistics, and trauma.

Doctoral work with the homeless population

Southey is currently a PhD student in global health at School of Human Evolution and Social Change at ASU. He wants to use his experience in the military, healthcare, linguistics, and trauma to help make impactful changes in the nonprofit sector.

“As a PhD student, my research is on health policy, homelessness policy and trauma policy,” Southey said. “I look at how trauma affects the homeless and individuals’ willingness to use services in general, but primarily health services, with a sub-focus on the unique aspects of veterans in this population.”

Southey said many times homeless veterans resist using resources because there is shame and the belief that others are more deserving. This culture of support resistance was established in the military and continues into civilian life, Southee said.

“How do we change the work we’re doing to account for and address the trauma that this population is experiencing right now, because homelessness itself is traumatic?” Southey asked. “But also looking at all the trauma they carry with them that probably contributed to or directly led to homelessness.”

Southey said he was really drawn to working with the homeless when he started working for Central Arizona Shelter Services (CASS) during the pandemic while working on her master’s thesis.

Project Haven was launched by CASS and the City of Phoenix to address the older homeless population most vulnerable during the pandemic. Customers can stay at a hotel site in separate rooms with food and security in one place.

Southey started with CASS as a behavioral health case manager for Project Haven, but is now the program’s success manager, which he hopes will help him provide data that will make policy more trauma-informed.

“I just love working with this population,” Southey said. “Despite how difficult the situation they are in, I have consistently seen my clients treat each other with grace and kindness, be upbeat and positive, take care of each other, and generally tolerate a terrible situation better, than I could. Working at Project Haven, I got to build close, personal relationships with these clients and learn about their lives before homelessness. Being homeless is a traumatic experience and it can feel very all-encompassing of a person’s identity, so sometimes it’s hard to remember that these are whole people with real — often very interesting — stories.”

Southey hopes to continue her work with nonprofits and trauma-informed policy development in leadership roles after receiving her Ph.D.

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