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Larry Dandridge

About VA Mental Health Services

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This is the final article in a series of four on VA Mental Health Services. The primary objective of each of these four articles is on breaking down barriers to and misconceptions about seeking mental health care.

This article will answer more questions about VA mental health care and will hopefully convince every military member, veteran, family member, caregiver, and survivor that:

The VA is second to none in Mental Health Care, and if you are exhibiting any of the symptoms of mental health problems with depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), Bipolar, TBI adverse effects, schizophrenia, tobacco addiction, or other mental health challenges, the VA wants to and can help you.

Self-treatment, like working too much (workaholism), drugs, alcohol, smoking, etc., for mental health problems does not work and can result in alcoholism, drug abuse, drug addiction; loss of sleep, divorce, loss of support from friends and family, loss of employment, financial ruin, homelessness, legal troubles, and suicide.

The Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center (RHJVAMC) and its Community-Based Outpatient Clinics offer the best mental health care available in the Lowcountry of S.C. and Ga.

Where can a veteran read about PTSD and the VA’s PTSD Center?

The VA is the world’s leading research and educational center of excellence on PTSD and traumatic stress. PTSD is a mental health problem that some people develop after experiencing or witnessing a life-threatening event, like combat, a natural disaster, a car accident, frequent deployments, physical assault, or sexual assault.

It is normal for people suffering from PTSD to have upsetting memories, feel on edge, become over vigilant, grieve, avoid thinking about the event, become angry, suffer from memory loss, suffer from flashbacks, suffer from depression, or have trouble sleeping.

If symptoms last more than a few months, it may be PTSD. The good news is that there are effective treatments. The author of this article can attest to the many successful types of PTSD treatments available at the RHJVAMC because he has gone through a highly successful treatment program there (See article 1 of 4 of this series at https://yourislandnews.com/about-the-vas-mental-health-services/.)

Every veteran and their family member, caregiver, and survivor should read the information at the VA’s Mental Health website at https://www.mentalhealth.va.gov/ and the VA’s PTSD National Center for PTSD website at https://www.ptsd.va.gov.

These websites will help anyone to better understand what PTSD is, how to get help, how families and friends need help, the treatment options, how to access mobile apps, how to access helpful videos and online programs, and how to get help now. Veterans, researchers, and providers (doctors, etc.) can also keep informed with the latest information and new products on trauma and PTSD by subscribing to the VA’s National Center for PTSD Monthly electronic newsletters and quarterly publications at https://www.ptsd.va.gov/publications/subscribe.asp.

What should Veterans, military members, their families, survivors, and caregivers know about the Ralph H. Johnson VA Health Care System (RHJVAHCS) Mental Health Team and services?

According to the Acting Chief of the RHJVAHCS Mental Health Center, “The RHJVAHCS’s clinicians are incredibly devoted and focused on the mission of serving our Veterans. To serve those who so selflessly and bravely served our country. We strive to ensure that there is no “wrong door” by which to enter mental health care. If you need us, we are here to serve you; and it will be our honor.”

Where can anyone read about RHJVAHCS Mental Health Services?

Lowcountry SC and GA veterans and their family members need to read the important information at the Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center’s website https://bit.ly/3I1205z.

All VA health care facilities offer same-day help. You may qualify even without enrolling in VA health care. Contact the RHJVAMC at 843-577-5011 to schedule, reschedule, or cancel an appointment. The VA will work with veterans and their family members to schedule an appointment with the shortest wait time. In some cases, the VA may schedule your appointment at another VA medical center or clinic, or refer you to a non-VA medical provider in your community. For urgent health issues, the VA offers same-day appointments, telehealth visits, or walk-in express care.

How many mental health professionals does the RHJVAHCS employ?

The RHJVAHCS Mental Health Department (Center and CBOCs) has 423 employees ready to help veterans and their families with mental health issues.

How many veterans commit suicide every day?

According to the VA and other reputable sources, the sad news is approximately 22 veterans commit suicide per day. However, and even more tragic is the fact that more than half (approximately 14) of them never asked for help from the VA Mental Health System.

What role do firearms play in veteran suicides?

According to the VA’s Office of Mental Health and Suicide Prevention Brochure found at

https://bit.ly/3A7jICz, veterans can take simple steps to protect themselves and their families, particularly if the veteran or others in the household are in crisis or experiencing suicidal thoughts or behaviors.

What should I do if I am worried about a veteran or veteran’s family member committing suicide?

If you are worried about a friend or family member, ask them directly about suicide and encourage them to seek help. Talk about safe firearm storage and the possibility of temporarily storing firearms with a trusted friend, relative, or elsewhere (check state and local laws). Veterans or their family members can ask for help from a primary care physician, mental health counseling center, or local emergency department.

The Veterans Crisis Line offers free, confidential support and crisis intervention 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. To reach the crisis line, call 1-800-273-8255 and Press 1, or send a text to 838255, or chat online at VeteransCrisisLine.net/Chat.

Does the Ralph H. Johnson Mental Health Department encourage gun safety?

Over the past year, the RHJVAHCS has focused heavily on lethal means (gun) safety. The RHJVAHCS has set a goal of increasing gun lock distribution by at least 20% in FY22. The RHJVAHCS partners with the S.C. Suicide Prevention Coalition, Palmetto Pathfinders, and others to help prevent suicides. You can read more about the S.C. Suicide Prevention Coalition at https://www.sprc.org/states/south-carolina.

The Palmetto Pathfinder Program is a South Carolina Veteran peer-support program that provides personal support for transitioning Veterans by connecting them to relevant resources and services in their community and assisting them in accomplishing their personal and professional goals, and staying mentally healthy and thriving after military service. More information about the S.C. Department of Veteran Affairs-led Pathfinder Program can be found at https://bit.ly/39XM33N.

What is the National Suicide Prevention Hot Line?

According to the VA and the National Institute of Mental Health, if someone is in crisis or you know someone in crisis, civilians (and veterans) can currently call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or text HELLO to 741741.

However, it is recommended that veterans or their family members call the Veterans Crisis Line directly at 1-800-273-8255 and press 1 or text 838255 to connect with a VA responder. There is also a Veterans Crisis Chat Online that can be accessed at https://bit.ly/3a2cxB9.

In addition, on July 16, dialing 988 is going live and connects to the National Suicide Prevention hotline. The RHJVAHCS Mental Health Team is making preparations now to care for Veterans who may reach out through the National Suicide Prevention Hotline, who are not yet plugged into VA services.

How many patients does the RHJVAHCS Mental Health Department serve?

In Fiscal Year 2021 the RHJVAHCS admitted 36,670 new patients (the vast majority are outpatients). The total number of patient mental health visits in 2021 was 35, 670.

What evidence is available to convince veterans the RHJVAHCS Mental Health Center is a world-class operation?

Do not take this author’s word that VA Mental Health Care and Services are second to none. The following facts should convince veterans that the RHJVAHCS is a world-class operation. The RHJVAHCS:

Is the only habitually rated five-star rated hospital in S.C.

Is rated by the Joint Commission in the top 10% of all public and private hospitals in the United States for customer satisfaction, quality of care, and many other key measurements for more than 10 years.

Was praised by the Joint Commission for mental health and other services provided in the inpatient unit.

Is partnered with the Medical University of S.C. (MUSC), and MUSC provides most of the specialty care doctors at the Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center.

Was praised in the last Joint Commission inspection for best practices for other hospitals to follow.

Has been nominated for the prestigious and internationally recognized DAISY Foundation Award. Specifically, the RHJVAHCS Homeless Primary Care and Mental Health Team (HPACT) was nominated and recognized for the outstanding care given to veterans in a mental health crisis. The team included Dr. Elizabeth Call, MD; Wilson Fitchett, DNP, APRN, FNP-C; Terra Sutton, LPN; and Jehad Karriem, MBA, MSN, RN.

Is a trained and certified Patient and Family-Centered Care (PFCC) operation.

Has one of the lowest turnover rates of employees in the U.S., and uses all modern methods of mental health treatments, including TRANS-CRANIAL MAGNETIC STIMULATION.

Is the only VA Medical Center with three nurse residency programs.

Gets mostly rave reviews on customer surveys and it is hard to find a veteran who has anything critical to say about the medical center and its CBOCs.

Provides Wrap-around services including primary and mental health care embedded in the Homeless Program, case management, housing, and job training services.

Homeless services are provided at the VAMC and all six CBOCs.

Excelling in Quality of Care. Grant Thornton and McKinsey & Company, the RAND Corporation, and the MITRE Corporation Study Show the VA Excelling in Quality of Care.

Provides and is expanding DAV free shuttle rides between Charleston area VA clinics and the medical center.

Has a beautiful Fisher House Charleston offering free lodging for the qualified families of veterans in the VA Hospital and for veterans with family members in other local hospitals.

Has too many other capabilities, services, and awards to list in one article.

The RHJ VA Health Care System provides primary, secondary, mental health, and tertiary care in Charleston, serving more than 70,000 veterans in 14 counties and encompassing more than 15,000 square miles. Charleston VAMC is a 149-authorized bed tertiary care teaching hospital, with sophisticated technology, multiple specialists and sub-specialists, a diagnostic support group, and intensive care facilities.

The Medical Center, with 20 operating nursing home (and hospice) care beds, is dedicated to providing the highest quality of patient care and services to Veterans along the South Carolina and Georgia. The RHJVAHCS provides the most specialized healthcare available anywhere in the world, which is administered to patients with complex diseases, including mental health conditions, who may require high-risk pharmacologic regimens, surgical procedures, community care, or high-cost high-tech resources.

Larry Dandridge is a Vietnam War wounded warrior, disabled veteran, ex-Enlisted Infantryman, ex-Warrant Officer Pilot, and retired Lt. Colonel. He is a past Veterans Service Officer, a Patient Adviser at the RHJ VA Hospital, the Fisher House Charleston Good Will Ambassador, and the VP for Veteran Affairs for the local Army Association Chapter. Larry is the author of the award-winning book Blades of Thunder and a contributing free-lance writer with the Island News. Contact him at LDandridge@earthlink.net or 843-276-7164.

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