Before Steve Abrams was working to advocate for equal care for Black veterans at the Brockton VA Medical Center, he was a patient himself.
"It's very cumbersome to get through the mental health department at the VA without somebody walking you through what's going on with you," he said. "If you can't explain how you're feeling, they will never get to the bottom of it."
In an interview with Boston Public Radio, he described meeting with doctors who were "standoffish" and appeared "threatened," which he attributed to his race. It took going through several doctors before he found someone who could talk to him about his mental health and get treatment for PTSD.
Abrams, a veteran who served for 23 years in the Army and Navy, now serves as the Veterans Affairs chair in Brockton. He's working to ensure Black veterans are treated equally. As part of these efforts, he facilitates group therapy, which meets at the Brockton VA Medical Center.
"I hear the stories and I work through those pains and issues," he explained, "and I just help veterans breathe, as I have."
Abrams attributed the mistreatment of Black veterans, like himself, to a lack of cultural competency among health care providers. He said health care providers don't always understand the military culture or racial culture. For example, he said Black people often express their feelings and stress in different ways than white people, and if a doctor doesn't understand that, they can't provide adequate treatment.
"We need to see people who look like us. ... We need the help of African American veterans, because we are standing in the way, right now, of people's lives being progressed," he said.
Black veterans have the highest disparities in health concerns. A recent report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office shows that Black veterans are denied benefits at a higher rate. For PTSD disability claims specifically, 55% of Black veterans who applied for benefits were denied, compared to 44% for white veterans.
Abrams clarified that even though these issues are ongoing, there have been significant improvements. The VA this summer announced a new equity team to assess why benefits are being distributed unequally and work to close those gaps.
"The VA is doing a stand-up job in addressing the concerns of African American veterans," he said.
Abrams is working closely with two researchers through the VA's Center for Healthcare Organization and Implementation Research, who are "drilling down the disparities between Black, African American veterans and healthcare."
He hopes to relay the findings to his unit and be able to apply that data in ways that help the veterans here in Brockton.
"I'm very hopeful," he said.