By Cory L. Higgs
Gov. Ralph Northam, members of the General Assembly and the Military and Veterans Caucus announced that they are implementing a public awareness campaign in the hopes to connect better service members, veterans, and their families with community-based mental health resources.
The U.S Department of Veterans Affairs reports that an estimated 17 veterans/service members die from suicide every day nationwide. Data from 2017 shows that 231 veterans died by suicide in Virginia alone, and that number contributed to 21 percent of all suicide deaths in the state.
Local veteran Harless Belcher, who served in Vietnam, noted that the scars of the war zone penetrate deeper than the skin. “People that aren’t even in action, just in the war zone, can have PTSD,” Belcher said, adding that he is glad Northam’s proposed biennial budget makes essential investments in Virginia’s community services boards and the services they provide through the STEP-Virginia program.
The Governor is requesting $177 million in funding for community-based services, which includes more than $64 million from the General Fund to continue implementing STEP-Virginia. The funding will enhance clinical care for military service members and veterans, and help community services boards provide more outpatient treatment, comprehensive crisis services, and peer support. These resources were recommended by the Governor’s Challenge to Prevent Suicide among Service Members, Veterans, and Their Families (Governor’s Challenge).
The General Assembly Military and Veterans Caucus is a bicameral, bipartisan group of legislators who meet weekly during the legislative session to discuss policy issues and matters relating to the military and veterans communities in the Virginia.
Belcher also is more than willing to offer an empathetic ear, although he is quick to note that he is not a therapist.
Belcher was 19 when he was drafted into the Army. He served in the 25th Division Triple Deuce, Second Battalion, Americanized Infantry, 22 Infantry Regimen. Belcher’s unit was stationed in War Zone 3, about 45-minutes west of Saigon, “but we had plenty of enemy around,” he said. On June 11, 1969, Belcher lost his arm in an rocket propelled grenade strike.
After that, he was sent home, and he said upon his return he was “treated like a king,” something that he knows a lot of other veterans didn’t have the luxury to experience. Belcher said he’s talked to people who said once they returned, they were spat on and ridiculed.
Belcher said that for every service member and veteran, there is a transition period where one has to reacclimate to life as a civilian and it’s more difficult for some. Coupled with the culture shock of reverting to ‘normal’ life, Belcher said, “a lot of these guys have seen ungodly things,” which he said has a lasting impact on their mental health.
As the number of suicides among veterans increases, he also is hopeful a challenge program unveiled in January 2019 will help.
Then, Virginia was selected as one of the first seven states to participate in the Governor’s Challenge to Prevent Suicide among Service Members, Veterans, and Their Families, a pilot program initiated by the national Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). The purpose of the Governor’s Challenge is to develop strategies and best practices to help implement the Veteran’s Association National Strategy for the Prevention of Veteran Suicide, which provides a framework for using a comprehensive public health approach to address this growing public health challenge among the veteran population.
The Virginia Governor’s Challenge team is co-chaired by the Secretary of Veterans and Defense Affairs Carlos Hopkins and Secretary of Health and Human Resources Dr. Daniel Carey. It is composed of federal, state, local, and non-governmental partners.
“We are grateful for the support of the General Assembly Military and Veterans Caucus and their leadership in increasing awareness of the work being done by the Governor’s Challenge team,” said Hopkins. “Together, we will continue our commitment to reduce the number of preventable deaths relating to suicide among service members, veterans, and their families.”
“It’s going to be up to the (person) to decide if (they) will accept help,” Belcher said. “If they take what the state is putting out there for them, it will help bring light to the situation.”
In the year since Virginia’s Governor’s Challenge team was established, it has taken several concrete actions which include:
• Providing training in military cultural competency to more than 500 mental health and primary care providers.
• The launch of a pilot program called Virginia Identify, Screen, and Refer to help healthcare providers better screen service members, veterans, and their families for suicide risk, and connect them to services that can help them.
• Working with the Virginia National Guard to develop a “warrior battle drill” that will help Guardsmen be able to identify signs of suicidal thoughts in their fellow soldiers or airmen, and take steps to get them help.
• Developing a Veterans Crisis Resource Card to help veterans find support quickly and easily.
Belcher said that these programs would bring light to the issues facing veterans thinking about suicide, but it will still ultimately fall to see “there is help for you.” Belcher said that in talking to a few veterans struggling, they all say the same thing that these programs and classes offered by the VA and other organizations are “one of the hardest things they’ve ever done. He says the classes open up old wounds or expose the service members to triggering situations throughout the process of ‘healing’ and that it may not be easy, but its “a great service to help veterans, they just have to (receive) the help.”
Military service members, veterans, and family members who are in crisis or having thoughts of suicide—and those who know someone in crisis—can call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (veterans and caregivers, press 1) for confidential support 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and 365 days a year.
All of the efforts are good news to Belcher, who encourages other veterans to use the new resources.
“It’s hard to crack the shell, but I can work to talk to other vets” and encourage them to accept help, he said.