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County programs tackle veteran suicide prevention

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Harris County, Texas and Oneida County, N.Y. are creating and expanding existing suicide prevention resources for veterans through U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs grant funding.

The funding is helping to broaden access to resources in rural communities and areas with limited medical services.   

Suicides in the active-duty military increased in the first three months of 2023 compared to the same time last year, according to a newly released Pentagon report.

The Defense Suicide Prevention Office revealed in its quarterly report that the overall number of active-duty suicides — 94 — from January through March was up 25% compared to the number of troops — 75 — who took their own lives in the first three months of 2022.

Harris County, which has the largest veteran population in Texas, is extending its suicide prevention programming to the neighboring rural counties of Brazoria, Chambers, Fort Bend, Galveston, Harris, Liberty, Montgomery and Waller through the Staff Sergeant Parker Gordon Fox Suicide Prevention (SSG Fox SPGP) grant.

Dave Lewis, director of Harris County’s Veterans Services Department, emphasized the importance of investing in outreach. 

“It’s easy for veterans to ‘slip through the cracks’ even if programming is made available, if they’re not aware it exists or it’s not easily accessible,” he said. The department’s outreach team works with local partners, including law enforcement and mental health care providers, to identify veterans who could benefit the most from suicide prevention services. 

“Waller County is one of the counties that touches Harris County, but it’s a very tiny community and it does have a relatively sizable veteran population, but not a lot of resources to be able to serve the needs,” Lewis said. “So, it’s us being able to [act as a] ‘hub-and-spoke’ out to these other counties and establish what I refer to as ‘centers of influence.’ 

“Somebody in that county — it might be a VFW [Veterans of Foreign Wars], it might be the local church, it could be the Dairy Queen — somebody, somewhere they’ve got the pulse of what’s going on with the veteran community. So, we try to connect with those centers of influence to try to understand what the veterans’ needs are, who’s struggling and what we can do to provide services.”

The grant is helping fund Harris County Veteran Services Department’s baseline mental health screening, outreach, case management, peer support services and assistance with transportation and benefits. 

“What makes us innovative and a little unique is that [outreach] ‘find’ piece and staying with them throughout the process,” said Jason Williams, deputy director of Harris County Veteran Services Department. “A lot of organizations, if [veterans] go to treatment, they get a pat on the back, and ‘Hey, good luck to you.’ We want to catch them on the other end of that and continue that continuum of care to follow through with them through the whole process to get them out on the other side to be more successful.”

Harris County Veteran Services Department has a team that goes into the jails twice a week and works on re-entry strategies with the thousands of veterans that go through the county’s justice system. They determine where the highest needs are, including food and housing insecurity, and ensure the veterans are connected to the needed resources, Williams said.

Making veterans aware of the services offered is the first key step, but the biggest challenge is then getting them to take advantage of them, Lewis said. 

“If I just give somebody a card and say, ‘Give this person a call, chances are about .00001% that they will actually call that provider,” Lewis said. “But if we meet them where they are, build that trust and then accompany them to a place it’s really wonderful … We like to bill ourselves as a ‘one-start shop.’ We can’t solve everything, but we want people to start with us, because we’ve probably seen those challenges before.”

Oneida County Mental Health Director Emily Ofalt echoed Lewis’ sentiment and said one of the biggest barriers identified by SSG Fox SPGP grantees in discussions has been breaking down the stigma in the veteran community of reaching out for help. Oneida County contracted with the local mental health clinical and crisis services organization The Neighborhood Center as the lead service agency and the Utica Center for Development as a subcontractor to handle outreach, case management and veteran peer services.

Mike Pracht, a social worker at The Neighborhood Center, is the program director for Oneida County’s SSG Fox SPGP programming. Pracht is a veteran himself and said his background helps him connect with the people the center serves through the grant.   

“I retired out of the Army after 20 years and I had my own issues with mental health, and I understand the kind of reluctance for veterans to really seek mental health assistance,” Pracht said. “It’s very difficult for us to admit that we need help from somebody — that’s really kind of the big first barrier, and then to actually go out and seek the mental health treatment. 

“There’s a very negative stigma about mental health when it comes to active duty and veterans in general, so having that knowledge and knowing kind of firsthand a lot of what these folks are struggling through is definitely advantageous in trying to work with them.”

Lewis, also a veteran, said having the shared experience of serving and building a sense of trust, “veteran-to-veteran,” has been a huge part of the success of the Harris County Veteran Services Department. He shared a story of a Texan veteran he was able to get through to who was experiencing significant legal issues and a mental health crisis.

“I picked up the phone, figured out who his defense attorney was and said, ‘Hey, can I make an appointment with your veteran?’ He said, ‘You certainly can, but he doesn’t really talk much and he doesn’t talk much to me, so I think it’s a lost cause to even try.’ And I said, ‘Let me try.’ 

“In 15 minutes after meeting this guy, I had his whole life story. And his attorney’s jaw dropped, because it was just one of those things. I didn’t serve in the same branch, in the same theater, in the same time, but he trusted me and told me his story and we worked out alternative solutions for him.”

An essential element to Harris County receiving the grant funding was expanding the services to neighboring rural counties, many of which have substantial veteran populations but a significant lack of resources for them. 

“Let’s say you’ve got somebody who’s got a substance use disorder or you’ve got somebody who is struggling with mental health — what happens?” Lewis said. “Well, typically the local county sheriff or law enforcement is going to get called, they’ll try to work with their local mental health authority, but the lines are so long there for everything else, it’s hard to get near real time services for people, so that’s been a focus of the VA for a long time.”

Oneida County has been able to use the funding to create programming specifically for veteran suicide prevention, and enhance its existing services, which were not at the same level as other areas in the state and country, Ofalt said.

Oneida County, home to around 14,000 veterans, applied for the grant after discovering that its Veterans Service Agency received over 10,000 calls within a year. Services through the grant include baseline mental health screening, peer support services and groups, benefits assistance and fiduciary and rep payee services.

“We were like ‘We definitely have a need,’ Ofalt said. “Specifically for veterans in suicide prevention, we don’t have that much compared to some of the Southern states, where they have so much veteran programming. I mean they were where we were at one point, so that was all my faith of, ‘We’ll get there someday,’ but we determined that this opportunity would really grow the services and our community.”

Oneida County has had more than 200 outreach events to get the word out about the suicide prevention resources, at locations including tattoo conventions, senior wellness fairs and correctional facilities.

The county is applying for a second year of grant funding and hoping to create more services, including equine therapy potentially, and expand to neighboring counties, according to Ofalt.

“Our veterans give everything they have to protect this great nation and its citizens,” said Oneida County Executive Anthony J. Picente Jr. 

“It is our responsibility to make sure they are taken care of in return,” he noted. 

“Oneida County is pleased to partner with The Neighborhood Center and the Utica Center for Development to provide our veterans with this suicide prevention program and ensure that they all receive the help they need.”

Oneida County Partners