White River Junction VA Medical Center, Vermont
7th Annual Community Mental Health Summit
Addiction and Suicide can feel uncomfortable to talk about, but that is exactly what approximately 100 veterans, federal, state and community providers did this last month. On July 26, 2019, the White River Junction VA Medical Center hosted their 7th Annual Mental Health Summit. This year’s summit focused on pathways to recovery among Veterans struggling with pain or addiction. Veterans and subject matter experts from across New England spoke to the ways that everyone can contribute to saving a life.
The program featured an address by keynote speaker, Sanchit Maruti, MD, Medical Director of the University of Vermont Medical Center Addiction Treatment Program. Dr. Maruti spoke to addiction and pain as two significant health issues that can compromise quality of life and increase risk for suicide. He presented a variety of compelling statistics and clinical interventions, however, his take home message focused on ways the audience can help minimize risk; mental health providers cannot be alone in the detection and intervention of suicidal thoughts or behavior, it is a community approach that will help save lives.
An interdisciplinary panel offered a clear example of the importance of having providers from all practices screen their patients for suicide risk. Approaching the subject of suicidal thoughts or behavior may be uncomfortable for some, but when the provider is comfortable starting these conversations it helps the veterans feel more comfortable sharing openly. It is important to be able to recognize the signs of suicide, ask directly about suicidal thoughts, validate the veteran’s experience, and personally ensure they swiftly connect to care.
The keynote speaker and VA Suicide Prevention Case Manager spoke to the importance of safety planning as an element of suicide prevention. The safety plan is a tool built and used collaboratively by the veteran and provider to help prevent future crises and lay out a road map for how to stay safe in an emergency. This plan includes a list of concrete coping strategies and resources to guide one to safety. A strong safety plan should be reviewed regularly, and the skills practiced during times of low stress. It is most helpful to keep the safety plan in a wallet or hung up at home where it will be easy to access in a time of crisis.
A safety plan includes six key elements:
- Triggers, Risk Factors, and Warning Signs
- Signs that I am in crisis and that my safety plan should be used
- Internal Coping Strategies
- Things I can do on my own, without contacting another person, to distract myself/keep myself safe
- Social Contacts Who May Distract From the Crisis
- People I can contact to take my mind off my problems/help me feel better
- Public places, groups, or social events that distract me/help me feel better
- Family Members or Friends Who May Offer Help
- People I can tell that I am in crisis and need support
- Professionals and Agencies to Contact For Help
- Mental health professionals, services, and crisis lines I can contact for help
- Making the Environment Safe
- Ways I can make my environment safer and protect myself from lethal means
The afternoon’s presentation on safety planning focused on lethal means counseling. “It’s not about sides,” says Thea Schlieben, MSW a Suicide Prevention Case Manager at White River Junction VA Medical Center. “It’s about saving lives.” A phrase that hits home to everyone in the room, saving a life isn’t about personal opinions or political positions, it is about what is right for each individual Veteran. Having those open conversations about access to opioid medications, firearms and other potential lethal means are necessary to minimize risk for suicide.
Jason Mosel, a Marine Veteran took the stage after lunch to speak about his return home after deployment. Mosel described struggling with survivor’s guilt which led to drinking and suicidality for many years. His life began to change in 2013 when he participated in an obstacle course that pushed him physically and mentally. He discovered that he could build his own recovery through extreme exercise.
“I did not know that this moment would change my life.” Explained Mosel at the summit, “I found something that I was missing, a community of people and a sense of accomplishment by pushing myself to a limit that I didn’t [think] was possible, then going beyond that!”
“Slowly I started to put down the bottle and lace up my running shoes.” Mosel explained. “though it sounds cut and dry, it was anything but that.” He went on to discuss the daily battle he endured while fighting off his ‘demons’ and confronting himself in the mirror. His turning point came through acceptance of his new reality, accepting that he can’t change his past but can control how he lives his future. He states that this is what drives him to push harder and to overcome the inevitable obstacles life throws in his way.
The day closed with a demonstration and lectures on applied yoga. Yoga has been used to support recovery by teaching effective breathing, meditation and calming the body’s movements. Reducing tension in the body can help open the gates for cognitive intervention.
Achieving optimal mental health is a journey that everyone must take with the help and support of the community. It is important to bring the community together to learn from one another. The White River Junction VA Medical Center’s Annual Mental Health Summit is one step toward fostering closer connections among providers, veterans and officials at federal, state and local levels. All parties striving together to build a better network of support to promote the growth and healing of the veterans who entrust us with their care.