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Shining a spotlight on the mental health of veterans

Posted: 4:24 PM, Nov 10, 2021
Updated: 2021-11-11 17:39:55-05

In 2019, there were an average of 17 veterans a day losing their life to suicide.

In 2014, it was 22 veterans per day.

A recent report from the VA shows that there were 399 fewer Veteran suicides in 2019 than in 2018. But there's still room to grow.

What the VA has taken a deeper look at is how many of those veterans were enrolled in VA care. According to Nikole Jones, a member of the VA suicide prevention team at the VA Maryland Health Care System, the organization is making sure it's seen within the community, building partnerships and working with agencies that service veterans.

In some cases veterans may not know what resources are available or have had an experience with the VA that they can't move past. Jones says they want to ensure those community providers know what resources are available so that the veterans even getting care in the community can be supported, because their risk for suicide is elevated.

"Those newest numbers show that we're moving in the right direction, but even at 17 veterans per day, we know that we have a lot more work to do," she explained.

One of the things Jones says she's most proud of is the support they've provided through the Veterans Crisis Line, where veterans can reach out 24/7. But also with their local suicide prevention program, they provide supportive care for veterans that may have elevated risks.

"Maybe they've been hospitalized recently, maybe they've had a terrible bout of depression, that leaves them thinking about suicide more than they ever have before," Jones detailed. "Our program reaches out and provides support in regards like telephone calls, we do caring letters, we may even consult with their provider about maybe there's time to increase the number of visits and things like that, that provide additional support."

Currently they're hoping to move into working with community partners, and also doing more clinically for at-risk veterans, to make sure that they have the support skills and techniques to get through any crisis that they may have.

The clinical program really adds evidence based practices to the care for these veterans when the suicidal crisis arise.

"So they do advanced suicide safety planning, cognitive behavioral therapy for suicide prevention, so really it's time sensitive...and specifically geared to those who struggle with the risk for suicide," said Jones.

For veteran Jon Hollands, he says a lot of veterans know about the VA, but are reluctant to go because they don't feel that their issue is bad enough to make them go and use resources that other folks probably would need more than they do.

"I know, a lot of veterans, myself included for years, never went to the VA," he explained. "That was for people who were hurt, you know...so that's part of the reluctance. It certainly was part of my reluctance as well."

Hollands was in the Marine Corps for almost seven years. He went in, in '86 and came out in '92 when he started his life as a civilian.

"[I] was doing fine for a number of years and even got to the point where I started my own company and things of that nature. But I had memories of the Gulf War and those sorts of things. I had nightmares, waking up, you know, a couple times yelling, things of that nature over the years, but it really didn't start to become a problem," he explained.

He explained that after breaking his ankle and receiving pain relievers, he essentially was self-medicating with the opioids that the doctor prescribed him.

"My mind quieted down and all that noise and the memories didn't happen as much and I didn't have the nightmares," he said.

After years of doing so, Hollands said he got to the point where he was essentially unemployable.

"Never did it occur to me that I should go to the VA and get help," Hollands said.

He wouldn't go until the day came when he finally had enough.

"I was living on my friend's couch, and I just couldn't do it anymore," he detailed. "I came down...got on the light rail, rode down to the VA and met with a psychologist...and I told him the truth about what was going on with me."

The next thing Jon knew he was enrolled in an intensive outpatient program, went into a PTSD residential program and was in there for a couple of months.

He went through intensive therapy and learned coping skills as well. He spent the next two years going through the mental health system at the VA.

"It completely changed my life, turned me around, fixed me if you will," Jon said. "Then I got hired here to help other veterans as peer support specialists to help other veterans navigate therapy and so forth."

A lot of veterans are really in need of support, but they have a hard time connecting with someone who may not be a veteran. So having veterans working in peer support is essential in bridging that gap.

"They really are at ease and feel some sense of relief that they can speak comfortably with someone who can understand what they're talking about," explained Jones. "So I love that our peer support is an extension of a bridge to our veterans who really might have a difficult time opening up and reaching out that hand for support."

The ultimate goal is to build these veteran's network to build their skill set so that when challenges come up, they know they have people in and outside of the VA that can support them and help them utilize their supportive family members and friends.

In terms of family and friends involvement, Jones explained that it's really important that they also be engaged in their loved one's treatment. It's essential for those people to know what signs to look for when things have "fallen off the rails" and what things they can do to help.

"It's so important that family members and loved ones of veterans see those resources available and know, they can call the Veterans Crisis Line, because they're a concerned family member. And they can talk about that risk that that veteran they love has," Jones said.

For more information on how you as a veteran or a loved one can get mental health resources, click here.