With mental health issues and homelessness still a problem with some veterans, a recent executive order will allow the veterans hospitals to treat more clients who do not have a spotless military record.
The information was presented at the 2018 Mental Health and Homeless Summit held at the Captain James A. Lovell Federal Health Care Center in North Chicago on Thursday. The summit also acts as a community outreach tool for the services that are provided by the hospital and its community partners. A resource fair and town hall meeting were also part of the full-day program.
Anthony R. Peterson, division head of the Mental Health Special Emphasis Programs, said that during the mid-2000s, officials saw an increase in mental health issues and suicide.
“Today, it is going down a little bit,” he said.
As of Jan. 9, an executive order signed by President Donald Trump gives veterans a year of transitioning services — which is when military personnel transition out of the service into civilian life — regardless of their character of discharge, Peterson said, although court martials, bad conduct or some AWOL affiliated discharges are still not eligible.
“That means another 35,000 veterans per year would be eligible to come into the system (nationwide),” Peterson said. “We’ve had a couple here in our own backyard.”
Peterson added that “it’s not necessary to drop them after a year, because they can transition into community care,” which consists of nonmilitary resources he described as critical for veteran care.
When he transitioned out of the Navy, Peterson said, he remembers feeling that he was leaving security behind.
“I remember feeling really empty at one point. There’s a lost sense of identity, but we still need to find employment and take care of ourselves,” he said, adding that some veterans have problems.
“People transitioning out have twice the risk of mental health issues as an active duty person. We need to get them the care they need,” he said.
Officials are using everything from using peer-support specialists — or veterans helping veterans — to making processes easier for all veterans to set up appointments and order prescriptions without having to go to the hospital.
According to Peterson, the reason for the continued effort is in the statistics.
“We have a problem — an epidemic, really, in our veteran community. We are losing 20 veterans a day to suicide,” he said. “One is too many and 20 is extreme. Of those, 14 of the 20 had not had contact with VA services. When they are engaged, the risk of suicide goes down.
“We need to get the word out to veterans. We’re trying to make it easier,” Peterson added, saying officials found that in the first year of transition, veterans had twice the rate of suicide than the overall veteran suicide rate.
The hospital’s transition care management tries to keep the transitioning veteran in touch with the medical services. They get about 175 referrals per year and there are 6,000 in the program, according to Kristina Lecce.
“We’ll meet and review the services that are available. By setting up the first contact, we find its way more likely they will come back,” she said.
Another speaker, MJ Hodgins, talked about the support services available to veterans outside the VA system, like the Lake County Veteran and Family Service Foundation. She said they had no eligibility rules — if you had worn a uniform for even a day, you are a veteran.
“Some don’t want to go to the government. But if they need support, then we will help them,” Hodgins said. “Everyone in our organization has been in the service or had family members that served. We want you to know everyone has walked in your shoes.”
The group includes trained veterans helping veterans as they try to cope with life after military service and they fight against homelessness, suicide and reduce hospitalizations. They started a coffee shop for veterans called Dryhootch, 100 S. Atkinson Road in Grayslake, and then started Vets and A Cup-A-Joe at coffee shops in Zion, Mundelein, Waukegan and Lake Villa. There is also an equestrian connection riding center.
“Veterans can feel like a fish out of water, but her they can connect with other veterans,” she said.
They serve individuals located in Lake, McHenry and southern Kenosha counties with a one-stop approach facilitated by certified veteran peer specialists. Hodgins said they try to address any problem that comes their way.
One example was a veteran whose wife ended up in the hospital and couldn’t work while also ringing up large medical bills. He wouldn’t reach out for help, but when the group found out about it, they arranged to have the mortgage payment made.
“And that was all they needed. This is about regaining stability and learning how else we can help so it doesn’t happen again,” Hodgins said.
They also organize trips for families, who sometimes because of deployments, have to learn to live together again. They have other programs like the Patriotic Painting Social and one where participants are a community volunteer for the day.
“We will help you, and we will be friends with you,” she said.
Romeny Dold, Navy veteran and now a patient safety manager at Lovell and former mental health nurse, said there is still a big stigma in mental health and mental health care, and he recounted his story.
“All of my life, I believed I could do anything — just need to put my mind to it,” he said. As he was transitioning out of service, he found it very stressful.
“But I told myself I can handle it. ‘I can do this,’” he said. “Then my dad died. A year and a half before, I reconciled with him, and it was a gift to be with my dad when he died. I kept pushing. ‘I can do this.’ I couldn’t fall off a cliff. I’d been sad before, depressed before, but I was a mental health nurse.
“But my human connections were severed. I was disconnected from the human race and I was lost. I told myself to pull myself up by the bootstraps, but then I realized it wasn’t working,” Dold said. Since he had always been a doer and goal-setter, he thought about driving into the oncoming lane of traffic.
“But that was a crime. I didn’t want to hurt anyone else or my family,” he said. He had been going to doctor’s appointments for blood pressure and earaches, but he didn’t have the courage to talk about his feelings.
Finally, he said, a nurse looked at him and asked, “What’s really going on?” and she didn’t let him deflect her questions.
“That’s when I took the step I needed to take. I was worried I was going to get admitted, but I didn’t. I had the same stigmas as other people had,” Dold said.
He described how a psychiatrist provided compassion and care, and Dold began taking medications. After two years, he felt he was OK again and stopped taking his medication without telling anyone.