VA enlists community organizations to target veteran mental health, suicide

LEAVENWORTH — Kansas Army National Guard Master Sgt. Lyle Babcock said he, like many veterans, struggled to admit he was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder when he came home from Afghanistan in 2013. Now, he helps run a nonprofit that partners with veteran health officials who are looking to reduce high rates of suicide among veterans.

 

Babcock serves as coordinator for Heroes on the Water, an organization that takes Veterans Affairs hospital patients fishing. He said fishing brought him peace when he came home from deployment.

According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, 20 veterans die by suicide every day. That has dropped from 22 a few years ago, but the suicide rate among veterans remains higher than among civilians. Part of the problem, VA officials said, is that just six out of those 20 veterans get treatment from VA hospitals.

“If we can’t get them in, we can’t help them,” said Stephanie Davis, suicide prevention coordinator for the VA Eastern Kansas Health Care System.

Davis called veteran suicide a “nationwide epidemic.”

To combat that, the VA Eastern Kansas Health Care System is looking to community partners to help reach veterans who may be reluctant to get help. The organization hosted its fifth-annual Mental Health Summit on Friday to connect veterans and veteran-focused organizations, like Babcock’s. Other organizations are aimed at helping veterans cope with mental health problems, raising awareness and helping veterans transition to civilian life. The goal, Davis said, is to reach veterans who may be suffering through those other organizations.

“They’re seeing the 14 out there,” Davis said.

Gina Graham, assistant director of VA Eastern Kansas Health Care System, called on organizations to help the VA reach suffering veterans.

“You may have access to them,” Graham said. “You may be able to help identify them, or you may be able to help educate their families in helping to get them in here, and so your partnership is inspiring to me.”

Babcock said he had his first panic attack on his first day at work after deployment, but he was reluctant to let co-workers and superiors know he was suffering. He had a service dog, Gunther, but didn’t bring him to work. Eventually, he worked with his National Guard superiors and now brings Gunther to work every day. He said other full-time Guard employees now bring their service dogs, too. He said Gunther and fishing help him manage his PTSD.

“Through that taking the ownership of it, you’re starting to control it versus it controlling you,” Babcock said. “Because if you don’t control it, it’s like a tornado.”

Babcock said his organization doesn’t require donations from veterans or a high level of commitment. It just lets them relax and fish. He said he thought veterans were private people and generally didn’t want to reach out for help. His organization, he said, engages veterans where they are.

Davis said it was difficult to assess how many veterans are suffering from mental illness in Kansas.

“I know that we are always consistently filled to the brim and ever-expanding our resources,” she said.

Davis said she didn’t expect to see what she called an “ever-expanding need for mental health care” end anytime soon.

Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer, an Overland Park plastic surgeon, said he thought better coordination between veterans’ resources and a larger number of providers could help.

“These specialized services, this collaboration is so important,” Colyer said. “We’re now thinking about the whole person.”

Colyer has served as a surgeon in war zones, including Iraq and Afghanistan. He said in his practice he has seen veterans who have attempted suicide or are addicted to opioid drugs.

State Sen. Steve Fitzgerald, a Leavenworth Republican who is running for Congress, said he was concerned about mental health among both veterans and civilians. He attributed mental health problems to the “breakdown” of society and divorced couples or broken families. Fitzgerald said soldiers have support systems when they’re in the military, but might not have support when they retire.

“When soldiers get out, they go from a supportive environment to a non-supportive environment,” Fitzgerald said.

The goal, Graham said, is to bring the daily suicide number to zero.

“We still have a lot of work to do, because one is too many and 20 is far too many,” Graham said.

Veterans in crisis can call 1 (800) 273-8255.

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