Headstrong Executive and US Army Bronze Star Medal Recipient Dustin Shyrock on Supporting Veterans Mental Health

Dustin D. Shryock joined Headstrong in 2014 and is currently the Director of Marketing (Chief Marketing Officer). Dustin has held numerous roles to include Chief of Staff & Director of Operations (COO). He has worked in the public, private, tech start-up, financial, and non-profit sectors. A veteran himself, Dustin’s service in the United States Army included two deployments in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom where he was awarded the U.S. Army Bronze Star Medal. Dustin spent nearly three years conducting operations in and around Baghdad, Iraq.

Name: Dustin D. Shryock
Role: Marketing Director
Based in: NYC

1. In your own words, describe who you are. 

I am a person that believes in sacrifice and service above all else. I believe that empathy and leading by example are key tenets of management. I have often been described as the ‘glue’ of groups or organizations I have been a part of. 

2. Can you describe the Headstrong Project? What types of patients do you serve and who are some of your key partners? 

Headstrong, founded in 2012, heals the hidden wounds of war by providing cost-free, bureaucracy-free, stigma-free, confidential, and effective mental health treatment for post-9/11 veterans and their families. In partnership with Weill Cornell Medicine, one of the nation’s leading mental health care centers, and the nation’s leading trauma clinicians, Headstrong developed and is implementing individually tailored and comprehensive treatment programs delivered virtually and in-person for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and related military trauma. Today, the program operates across 27 cities in 11 states.

3. What were some of your biggest challenges returning to civilian life after the military?

I left active duty military service in 2009. It is my understanding that the process, while still not stellar, has drastically improved. Coming home after spending nearly three years in Baghdad, Iraq was nothing short of terrifying. I was leaving the Army behind, an organization that supported me, after five years of dutiful service and entering into a new combat zone; a family that had grown, changed, and adapted to my absence. I was prepared for a shooting war, the military ensured, but I could not have more unprepared for the war that would ensue upon returning home. I am not unique having lived through combat: 2.5 million of my fellow U.S. service members have as well. It is important for these facts to be stated because many service members have a similar story to mine. Some service members excel in the military and have very few issues post service. However, some of us return home and become lost in trauma – nearly 20 veterans commit suicide daily in the U.S. – while others deal with depression, anxiety, substance abuse which can all lead to unemployment (and under employment), homelessness, and stressed family ecosystems. 

4. Mental health has often been stigmatized in the military. How do you see this conversation about mental health changing among enlistees or veterans? 

I think to push this question even further would be to acknowledge that mental health is highly stigmatized across the globe. In the military, mental health is tough to deal with. If I had the answer, the world would likely be a better place but alas I am simply in a place where I recognize the stigma. One way we can all combat the stigma is to openly discuss our trials, tribulations, and successes however large or small they may be. I am quite far removed from the active military at this point. The suicide rate among veterans is still hovering around 20 people a day. There is still so much work to be done. What we are doing together is the right answer.  

5. The Veteran Affairs Mental Health services offered are frequently derided. In your opinion, how can the VA improve their mental health offerings and what should its role be in partnerships with independent organizations and nonprofits such as Headstrong?

The VA is absolutely horrible at providing mental health care. One immediate fix is a comprehensive Public-Private partnership that mirrors a coherent reimbursement model- think insurance. The VA knows that they have a huge problem on their hands, but it is an incredibly large bureaucracy. However, I can assure you they are working on a solution. 

6. What are some of your biggest pain points about the mental health nonprofit landscape? 

Speaking specifically to the military veteran mental health care non-profit landscape I would have to say funding scarcity is a huge pain point. We are competing with other non-profits that simply have the word ‘veteran’ in their mission statements. I feel confident enough to say that Headstrong has no actual competitors in the veteran health care space. 

7. Describe your wellness regimen if you have one. What are some steps you take to keep yourself well mentally, physically, and spiritually? 

I learned to breathe at Headstrong! Seriously. Among learning to box-breathe, I have become an avid runner and do yoga when I can. I take more time to listen instead rather than speak. There is no one way to be powerful in your mental health. My hope for the reader is that you will consider making yourself stronger through health and when you encounter those struggling, listen to them. You might save their life. 

8. What is one key message you want people to take away from the mental health conversation? 

I think the general misconception is that PTSD means you are permanently broken. It is just not the case. We know that we can save someone’s life. The only thing they need to do is show up. 

9. Headstrong has grown rapidly since its 2012 inception and received recognition from celebrities such as Seth Meyer and Jake Gyllenhaal as well as many positive reviews from over 1,700 clients. What do you think has been a key factor in your organization’s success? 

A key factor of our success is rooted in the way we treat clients. Once a client begins with Headstrong, we commit to getting them better through tailored treatment and we do not set a session limit on their care. Our average client will use our services for nearly 34 sessions- which is incredible. Our clients treated in 2019, 90% reported improved quality of life, 77% reported a reduction in suicidal ideation, and 76% reported improved mood- among other measurements. 

10. During coronavirus, how successful have you found virtual therapy sessions to be for patients? How do you think this will change the teletherapy landscape going forward? 

The tele-mental health care space existed prior to the pandemic. What COVID-19 did for the tele-mental health space was legitimize its existence and create an entirely new area for innovation. 

11. What has Headstrong’s greatest success been to you thus far? Where do you want to see Headstrong grow in the next 3-5 years? 

We have been improving lives, reducing barriers to effective mental health care, delivering industry leading outcomes for over 8 years now. That is amazing to me. Our goal is to be the nation’s provider of choice for community based mental health treatment for military veterans and their families.

12. Letters to My Younger Self: If you had any advice to give your younger self, what would it be? 

Slow down, take a breath, recalibrate, then execute. 

Interview by Susan Y. Im and Theophila Lee

Full Bio: Dustin D. Shryock joined Headstrong in 2014 and is currently the Director of Marketing (Chief Marketing Officer). Dustin has held numerous roles to include Chief of Staff & Director of Operations (COO). He has worked in the public, private, tech start-up, financial, and non-profit sectors. A veteran himself, Dustin’s service in the United States Army included two deployments in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom where he was awarded the U.S. Army Bronze Star Medal. Dustin spent nearly three years conducting operations in and around Baghdad, Iraq. Originally from Sonoma, California, he is a graduate of Pace University– where he was awarded the New York State Conspicuous Service Cross for dedication to the veteran community – and is a former White House Intern having worked on the Joining Forces team within the Office of The First Lady. He earned his Master of Public Administration, with a focus on non-profit management, from The Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service at New York University. While at NYU Wagner, Dustin completed executive management work at Cornell’s Johnson Graduate School of Management where he studied strategy tactics and leadership development and was a Fellow at the Hertog Foundation. Dustin is Currently an Executive MBA Candidate at NYU Stern and recently completed executive management work in social entrepreneurship at Stanford Graduate School of Business, was a Fellow at The Economic Club of New York, and completed an advanced undergraduate diploma at the University of Oxford. 

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