(The Center Square)
Members of the Pennsylvania Senate’s Veterans Affairs and Emergency Preparedness Committee met in Chambersburg on Thursday, as Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin issued nationwide orders to increase access to mental health care in the military.
Committee Chairman Sen. Doug Mastriano, R-Chambersburg, opened the meeting by noting optimistically the downward trend in suicides in recent years following a series of state initiatives designed to combat the mental health of veterans. But, he says, there is still a lot of work to do.
“One veteran suicide is too many and the numbers we see in Pennsylvania are a tragedy,” Mastriano said. “We need our veterans to know that help is available and that suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem.
Brig. Gen. Laura McHugh, deputy adjutant general of the Pennsylvania National Guard, provided details of some of the programs undertaken by the state, including an anonymous survey program that leads to personalized risk management plans for units. individual.
Army veterinarian and committee vice-chairman Sen. Tracy Pennycuick, R-Red Hill, expressed concern about the closure of hospital facilities in Coatesville.
Brig. Gen. Maureen Weigl, deputy adjutant general for the state Department of Veterans Affairs, acknowledged the challenges posed by the closures, as well as the need to relocate 90 hospitalized veterans, most of whom are seniors unlikely to return to the labor market or to find accommodation with a family.
“If we’re really lifelong soldiers, then we need to start having these conversations when we enlist someone in the military, that it’s okay if you’re struggling,” Pennycuick said.
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Homelessness is a major risk factor for suicide. Others include substance abuse, isolation, and family and legal issues. Peer support and initiatives like PA VetConnect And Veterans Treatment Court have been essential in serving the state’s more than 800,000 veterans, 2,000 of whom are incarcerated.
Weigl emphasized the vital role of local partners and nonprofit organizations in meeting the needs of the Pennsylvania veteran community.
“There is no right answer to healing,” she says.
Franklin County Director of Veterans Affairs Justin Slep described the work of his five-member staff who currently serve more than 13,000 veterans. They have managed to fundraise over $20 million and implement successful programs like Operation Save-a-Vet Save-a-Pet.
“It’s absolutely crucial to think outside the box when it comes to mental health,” Slep said.
Local perspectives were also offered by several residents who provide the support the state relies on for its veterans.
Bruce Bartz, who runs a York-based nonprofit called Bartz Brigade, has spoken about reducing the stigma around mental health after his son, Trent, an army veteran, died by suicide in 2015.
“A lot of veterans are afraid to talk about mental health issues because of the stigma,” he said. “Suicide, mental illness, depression and anxiety are the only illnesses we blame the person for having. People die by suicide as they do from any other disease, but we blame them. One of the best ways to raise awareness of our mental health crisis is to hear testimonials like this.
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Cindy McGrew, founder of Operation Second Chance, also spoke about the material and emotional resources provided by her organization.
“We love them,” she said. “We give them the dignity they so deserve.”
Wounded Warriors veterans Dominique Brown and Elizabeth Cooper shared their own experiences with suicidal ideation and their journeys to peer support.
Gold Star’s parents, Mike and Sally Wargo, want to raise awareness while memorializing the approximately 168,000 veterans from all 50 states who have died by suicide.
“We need to convince veterans that it’s okay to ask for help,” said Mike Wargo.
Senators John Kane, D-Chester, and Lindsey Williams, D-Natrona Heights, expressed in a joint statement the importance of these programs, as well as ensuring the appropriate and effective use of money donated to the effort.
“We know from research that when veterans seek help, they are unable to wait or be referred by several different organizations or agencies,” the senators said. “We need to do more to streamline these processes and ensure that the nonprofits doing this work are able to reach veterans quickly. »
Syndicated with permission from The central square.