Wellness Wednesday: Supporting veterans' mental health

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Black and white photo of Stillwater Minnesota Veterans Memorial.
A view of the Stillwater Minnesota Veterans Memorial. (Tomas Alvarez / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
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Supporting veterans' mental health
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Eric Wittenberg is an active duty Army veteran who was deployed to Afghanistan in 2010. For the past four years, he's been working as the suicide prevention coordinator with the Minneapolis VA health care system. He has worked in different roles with the VA, including his time on the PTSD team as a therapist, and at the St. Paul Vet Center as a readjustment counselor.

With the news around the troop withdrawal from Afghanistan after 20 years, and the recent 20th anniversary of 9/11, we were thinking about veterans and mental health. I wanted to have a general conversation about that topic today.

Every Wednesday morning at 8:30 CST, Jill Riley connects with experts and local personalities for some real talk about keeping our minds and bodies healthy — from staying safe in the music scene, to exercising during a pandemic, to voting and civic engagement. Looking for more resources and support? Visit our friends at Call to Mind, MPR's initiative to foster new conversations about mental health. Subscribe to Wellness Wednesday as a podcast on Spotify, Apple, RSS, Radio Public, Stitcher, or Amazon Music.

Jill Riley: Before we get started: I think people know what the VA is, but maybe aren't familiar with all the services that are offered. Can you give a general overview of the VA and the special services you offer for veterans?

Eric Wittenberg: Yeah, no problem. Here, we're at the Minneapolis VA health care system. That includes 13 outpatient community clinics all through Minnesota, and including western Wisconsin. We have primary care, we have mental health, we have specialty services, dental, vision, all of the above. My focus is really on mental health services. Within mental health, we also have addiction recovery services for those with drug and alcohol issues. We have an intimate partner violence program, we have the suicide prevention program. What we really focus on is getting veterans who are at a higher risk for suicide, getting them some enhanced care during their time that they're in a crisis or shortly after.

We also manage the Veterans Crisis Line referrals. So when people make a call in crisis, 24/7, we manage that and connect them with care as best we can. And aside from that, we just have a variety of different groups providing mental health services.

How would you say that veteran mental health overall is doing? I imagine that the services and the conversations have changed so much, even in the past couple of years.

Yeah. Last year, when we had the unfortunate incident of Mr. Floyd's death, we did see quite an uptick in calls and just people coming in and needing to talk to providers. We were very busy to say the least, not only in person, but with Veterans Crisis Line. Then Covid hit, and so we started to see a different type of caller calling in. Not so much just in a mental health crisis, but just not doing well, in general — whether it's trying to find transportation, whether it's fearful of running out of meds or supplies. We really tried to manage that.

This spring, we really saw a little bit of relief from all that: our numbers kind of started to level off, people seemed to be doing better, our suicide attempts that we track seemed to be decreasing as well. So I think right now, we're kind of in a holding pattern — in a good way, if you will. We're kind of back to to the norm. I think people are finally recovering and healing through all the stuff that's happened in the last year or two.

So when you talk about, suicide prevention, and suicide rates of veterans, how common is the issue when it comes to mental health?

So this is a stat that was shocking to me when I first started the program. On any given day, about 6% to 7% of our population are considered veterans. However, in some populations among veterans, they're dying at a rate two times more than the general population. So we're looking at a pretty big problem. If you look at the data over the last few years, 20 veterans per day die by suicide. We get that number by: 17 veterans who meet the federal definition. Then if you add in the active duty, the reservists, and the [National Guard members], that's how we get to that 20. That number is really hasn't changed in the past five or six years. However, the Office of Mental Health and Suicide Prevention just released their national report for 2019, and the main thing that I want to show with that is that for the first time since 2001, we have seen a decrease in veteran suicides. So in the last year, we can show that we're really making some some headway and helping our veterans.

What percentage of veterans would you say suffer from some kind of PTSD? What can be done to help?

Right now, roughly, it's about 13%, 14%, 15% of those who have served in the military are diagnosed with PTSD. The reason why we think that's low is a lot of it goes undiagnosed. People never come in for help — or oftentimes, they have a set of symptoms, but don't meet our criteria. So we imagine that that number is is much higher. Honestly, the best way to help those folks in the studies are out there is [encouraging them to visit] the VA, because we really specialize in that care for veterans — whether it's mental health, primary care, specialty care. All our data and statistics show that those veterans that come into the VA just do better in life and have lower suicide rates.

We've just got to make sure we get that we're really pushing the public health model for suicide prevention and mental health. So that means we're trying to trying to shift the paradigm from waiting till somebody is in a crisis, waiting until they take that action to take their life, to actually giving them the help in the community. We're trying to reach places where they work and where they [attend school]. We're trying to give everybody in the community information to ask those hard questions about suicide so hopefully, they can help people before it gets to the point where they want to take their life.

Has what has been going on overseas had any effect lately? Have you been hearing from veterans who may have served in Afghanistan with the troop withdrawal recently?

Huge uptick, not only in calls, but people wanting to come in and talk to their providers — not only from the veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, but the previous Gulf War [and] Vietnam veterans. I think a lot of it has to do with just finding that purpose and meaning, and for some that was taken away from them by those images [of U.S. withdrawal]. So we want to make sure that we're we know that we are here for those men and women. We want to help them. We can connect them with other veterans that are dealing with that, so [they] don't have to feel alone.

Do you hear from vets around the anniversary of 9/11?

You know, we really don't, to be honest with you. Once we get through summer, it's kind of a wall. And then once people get into the routine of fall and winter in school, we start to see more maybe in that October, November timeframe. But since my time here, yeah, I don't think we've really seen too much of an uptick.

What can friends and family or even coworkers of veterans who may be experiencing a crisis do to help?

We do have some couples therapy or marriage therapy that we do here at the VA: spouses and loved ones are more than welcome to come in and attend to visit with a veteran or be here for support, wait in the lobby, get something to eat. The Vet Center here in Minnesota is actually part of the Department of Veterans Health Administration; [there's] one in Duluth, one in Minneapolis, and one in St. Paul. They really do focus on that family in that couples counseling as well, so that's an option for everybody. They can just go online and look up Minnesota Vet Centers, and they will bring the link to one of those three sites.

I think we all go through tough times in our life where we're down, and we just need a good friend or somebody to empathize with our situation. So I always say the best thing you can do is just be a good person and talk to somebody. Ask questions. The VA has a great campaign called #BeThere. Now we're switching to the Reach Out campaign. It just gives you ideas of how to connect with a veteran: as easy as "Hey, do you want to go grab a cup of coffee? Oh, I, you know, I know you've been isolating lately. Why don't we go walk in the park?"

None of us have to be trained in mental health or have any special skills to help somebody; we just have to be there and be a good person, empathize. Listen more than you talk. Let them vent, or let them get some things off their chest. And then the most important thing is, we have the Veterans Crisis Line number. That is 1-800-273-8255. You don't have to be the veteran to call; you can be a friend, a family, coworker, a loved one who needs some help with a veteran, and you can call that as well. I think just ultimately knowing that veterans have a hard time sometime; just treat them with respect [and] kindness, and let them know that help is available.


Wellness Wednesday is hosted by Jill Riley, and produced by Christy Taylor and Jay Gabler. Our theme music is a portion of the song "F.B. One Number 2" by Christian Bjoerklund under the Non Commercial Share Alike 3.0 International License. This week's photo is by Tomas Alvarez (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0). The image was altered: it was cropped, filtered to greyscale, and supplemented with a logo.


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