Mental health panel highlights issues facing veterans, work still to be done

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By Willis Patenaude, Times-Register

 

Elkader’s Earthmoving Legacy Center was the recent site of a panel discussion revolving around mental health, specifically as it relates to veterans. 

 

Sponsored by the Clayton County Veterans Affairs office, the event reminded the public that, sometimes, the most damaging wounds a veteran faces are the ones that can’t be seen. As a collective community, a larger effort needs to be made to “stop the stigma” related to veterans seeking help for mental health matters. 

 

It also reminded those in attendance that the issues facing America’s—Clayton County’s—veterans last beyond Veterans Day. 

 

In fact, they are a daily struggle for a majority of veterans. That was noted quite immediately by the panelists, which included Deb Moeller, community engagement and partnership coordinator for the Iowa City VA Health Care system; Jason Howes, county social services coordinator; and Vietnam veteran Greg Clark. 

 

From the outset, they brought up that almost 17 veterans a day commit suicide and that almost 50 percent never seek help, succumbing to what Clayton County Veterans Affairs and General Relief Administrator Chris Jordan and others often refer to as the “stigma.” 

 

According to the website Stop Soldier Suicide, the risk of suicide is 57 percent higher for veterans than the regular public, and over 125,000 veterans have ended their life by suicide since 2001. 

 

But what is this “stigma” that drives these numbers and prevents or limits the willingness of veterans to seek help to mitigate the silent wounds they’re suffering. According to Jordan, there is a sense of isolation felt by veterans and a hesitancy in asking for help, which is most likely a holdover from their role as a soldier. Among this group, being vulnerable is often viewed as a weakness.

 

Some of this is a result of the transition back into society and civilian life, which is often met by homelessness, financial difficulty and no resources to turn to. 

 

According to Stop Soldier Suicide, more than 40 percent of veterans say they experience high levels of difficulty when transitioning, while roughly 35 percent indicated they have trouble paying their bills in their first few years after leaving the military. 

 

More than 80 percent of civilian organizations have no veteran-specific recruiting programs, and more than 50 percent offer no onboarding or transition support to veteran hires. And perhaps more importantly, there is a disconnect between veterans and the civilian population, as more than 80 percent of post-9/11 veterans say the public does not understand the problems those who have served face in transitioning to civilian life. 

 

Moeller touched on some of these issues, citing the VA Mental Health Report, though cautioned most of the data on this subject is about two to three years behind, giving rise to the statement that the data is “behind the 8 ball” when it comes to veteran mental health. 

 

Still though, the data revealed there needs to be an increase in support and more investment in counselors who can deal with the “sense of loss” and “loss of purpose” prevalent among the veteran population. 

 

This issue touched home with Clark, who understands more than anyone from the panel the problems facing veterans when they return to civilian life. Clark pondered, “When you come back here, to society, how do you change and change into what, especially given the fact that you can’t go back to how you were and you can’t undo what you know.” 

 

With the stigma and litany of problems established, the panelists spoke about how to overcome it. One way is to promote connectedness and community engagement, something Jordan is attempting to increase in his role, specifically by attending American Legion meetings and other non-profit organizations. He wants to seek out opportunities to make connections and talk with the 500 to 600 veterans within Clayton County and, at the very least, let them know someone is there to help, listen and advocate for them. 

 

On this issue, Howes noted veterans “are not alone,” and the issues they face are experienced by others as well, specifically the financial stress of paying bills. He also addressed how the media can exacerbate the problems veterans face, especially in terms of the language used to describe veterans or anyone with a mental health issue as “dangerous.” 

 

Howes spoke to the problems of self-medicating, a statistically larger issue among the veteran population, who often coalesce around the socially acceptable idea of “pulling yourself up by your boot-straps,” which tends to shun seeking help. However, according to Howes, self-medicating is a “spiral,” and a coping mechanism that often leads to greater problems and further self-medicating. 

 

As Clark stated, one coping mechanism is often a gateway to another. 

 

All of this makes the work done by the panelists and Jordan imperative in the fight against the stigma, which is showing some signs of abating, though slowly. It starts with what Clark noted was forming friendships and bonds, especially with younger veterans, in an attempt to break the cycle and get them help long before they resort to the option of suicide. 

 

This requires outreach, but it might also require a simplified VA benefits process, since Jordan noted this is one of the more complicated issues he helps veterans with. It might simply mean improving the VA experience in general, as several veterans in attendance expressed dissatisfaction with the care and assistance they received. That prompted the panelists to empathize, but also highlight the phrase that “if you’ve been to one VA, you’ve been to one VA,” essentially stating that it’s not a universal experience, so they shouldn’t give up on the VA. 

 

Along with continuing to visit the VA, the panelists discussed the recent launch of 988, The National Suicide Prevention Line (NSPL) by the The Iowa Department of Health and Human Services in July. The number is for individuals in suicidal crisis or emotional distress. People who call will be directly connected to trained crisis counselors who provide crisis de-escalation. It will also connect individuals to the services and supports they need, when they need it.

 

“The national launch of 988 coincides with the significant work we’ve been doing here in Iowa since I took office to enhance and improve our historically fragmented crisis response system. Iowa families—all families—should have quick and easy access to necessary mental and behavioral health care resources when they need them, and 988 will serve as a centralized resource for Iowans to utilize during their times of need,” said Gov. Kim Reynolds at the time of its launch.

 

Moeller said there has been a 60 percent uptick in calls since the 988 program rolled out, indicating that people, including veterans, are reaching out for help. 

 

However, the mission for the panelists, including Jordan, is to provide help before a crisis is ever reached. As progress is being made in the area of veteran mental health, the challenge is still real, and it’s one of the many things Jordan is trying to help with. 

 

It all starts by simply contacting his office, and by doing so, Jordan will help veterans make a plan and provide access to resources. Above all else, he will listen. And, sometimes, for a community of people who feel detached and isolated, listening is all it takes to break the stigma. 

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