VA Hospital Meeting

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COLUMBIA - Increasing veterans' access to mental health care was at the front of the minds of medical professionals, veterans and community volunteers who attended the Veterans Affairs Mental Health and Homelessness Summit on Friday at the Harry S. Truman Memorial Veterans' Hospital.

According to the American Psychological Association, 20 percent of veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan suffer from a mental illness, most commonly post-traumatic stress disorder, substance abuse disorders or depression. Ensuring those veterans have access to mental health resources is a growing mission of the Veterans Health Administration.

Randall Rogers, a psychologist at Truman VA Hospital, said when it comes to developing solutions for veterans' mental health challenges, many heads are better than one. In addition to VA hospital staff, the summit brought together representatives of the Salvation Army, the Missouri Department of Mental Health and veteran resources groups to discuss new partnerships that could improve veterans' mental health care.

"It's good to have a bunch of people in one room, to get a bunch of different viewpoints from the perspectives of different agencies," Rogers said.

Improving access to behavioral health services and treatment was a key objective of the summit. Rogers said a new initiative at the Truman VA Hospital encourages same-day mental health treatment. Veterans seeking mental health services can walk into the hospital and be seen by a behavioral health specialist within hours, if not immediately.

According to 2008 data by the RAND Corporation, only 30 percent of veterans with PTSD or depression seek help in the VA health system. A mental health crisis is no time to test a patient's patience, and Rogers said streamlining the treatment process could encourage more veterans to seek help when they need it.

During the summit, community groups and veteran resource organizations discussed partnerships that could improve veterans' economic well-being and mental health.

One project, the Functional Zero Task Force, aims to eliminate veteran homelessness in Columbia by identifying homeless vets and finding solutions for their housing needs. Another initiative, the Veterans Justice Outreach Program, encourages collaboration between medical professionals and local law enforcement in handling veteran mental health crises.

"The Veterans Justice Outreach Program helps train law enforcement in how to best manage situations that involve mental illness," Rogers said. "It's working to help make sure that those incidents get resolved in a safe, calm way."

Sylvia Jackson, chief of voluntary service at Truman VA Hospital, said the summit is a call to action for local organizations and veteran service groups. As a VA employee, she helps raise awareness about a mental health resource that's just a call away—the Veterans Crisis Line.

"The Veterans Crisis Line can be dialed by any veteran whenever there's a crisis concern," Jackson said. "We never know when those are going to happen. Sometimes, it could be a trigger from something that's happened bad in the past. Sometimes, it could be a death in the family. Sometimes, it could just be a difficult situation."

The crisis line can be reached at 1-800-273-8255 and provides 24-hour confidential support to veterans, their families and friends from Department of Veterans Affairs staff.