DANVILLE — Officials from the Veterans Affairs Illiana Health Care System and community service providers said they want to improve their collaboration in order to better address the mental health needs of veterans and their families.
They took the first step at a community mental health care summit at Danville Area Community College's Bremer Conference Center on Thursday, one of many the VA is holding throughout the country.
"By improving our collaboration, our goal is to improve access to mental health services they may need and identify and bridge any gaps in those services," said Michael Clayton, acting chief of mental/behavioral health at the Danville medical center. "Certainly, the earlier we engage them, the better quality of life they're going to have."
During its 2012 fiscal year, the Illiana system — which also has community-based outpatient clinics in Decatur, Mattoon, Peoria, Springfield and West Lafayette, Ind. — served 33,500 veterans, officials said. About 10,000 of them received mental health services.
As the military draw-downs in Afghanistan and Iraq continue, Clayton said, even more service men and women will be returning home, so local communities must be prepared to meet their needs and prevent problems that can lead to family discord, substance abuse, job loss and homelessness.
The local summit brought together close to 60 VA staff, health and mental-health providers and representatives of veterans organizations throughout Illiana system's 34-county service area in central Illinois and west central Indiana. They broke into groups to discuss suicide prevention; acute psychiatric needs and inpatient and residential treatment; and post traumatic stress disorder and post-combat readjustment.
In the small-group settings, participants learned about what services they offer and discussed overlaps, gaps and what they can improve on, among other things.
Participants agreed that while there's an array of services, those who need them don't always seek them out. That may be due to the stigma surrounding mental health disorders, and a reluctance among vets to seek help because they're afraid it will affect their chance of being redeployed, getting a special security clearance, landing a job, or they don't want to be perceived as being weak.
"They served their country," said Brittany Trabaris, manager of the VA's Operations Enduring Freedom, Iraqi Freedom and New Dawn program. "They don't want to feel like they're broken, and someone needs to put them back together."
While vets might not run to the VA for mental health help, some suggested they might be more likely to go to the Salvation Army or another community agency for some other type of assistance. Those agencies could screen clients to see if they're active military members, veterans or family members, and then inform them about veteran-related services.
"That's one of the first questions we should be asking," said Dee Ann Ryan, the Vermilion County Mental Health 708 Board's executive director.
Others suggested broadening the partnership to include police, firefighters, emergency medical personnel, primary care physicians and clergy — who might be the first to intervene in a crisis situation — and educate them on resources that are available.
Participants also said that while there seems to be programs for vets, the same can't be said for their spouses and children.
"We need to beef up support groups for families," Bridget Tribout, a VA clinical psychologist, who facilitated the suicide prevention group with Natalie Liggett, the medical center's suicide prevention care manager.
Liggett said it's important that community providers be aware of the national Veterans Crisis Line, which people can call toll-free at 1-800-273-8255. They can also chat online with someone at http://www.veteranscrisisline.net.
"It's not just for suicide," Liggett said. "It's for any mental-health crisis."
Marcy Kujawski, the VA's mental health supervisory social worker, pointed out another gap: some type of crisis respite care.
"They don't need to be in the hospital, but they shouldn't be left alone," she said.
For Terra Ogle — of Lifelinks, a mental health agency in Mattoon — the summit provided her with much more insight on everything the VA provides at its medical center and clinic in her town, as well as the military culture.
"We have seen an increase in veterans and their families," Ogle said. "Veterans have unique needs because of their military experience, and they've returned to these small communities where there's a lack of understanding about their needs and how they might be different from our standard mental health population. I feel like through this partnership we're building with the VA, we can better understand their needs and reach out to the VA to get the most appropriate services for them."
Others said they want to see the collaboration continue and grow stronger.
"We made a lot of good connections today," Ryan said. "We need to continue to work on connecting the dots."