Our veterans have honorably served the nation, endangering their lives to protect our freedom and liberties. It is because of that we regularly gather as a community to give them the hero’s welcome they deserve. It also is the reason we should do whatever we can to recognize and help those wounded warriors in need of assistance.
September is Suicide Prevention Month and, unfortunately, startling national statistics and recent local events underscore the challenges we continue to face in reaching every veteran in crisis. With an average of 20 suicides daily of U.S. military personnel, there is an urgency to ensure veterans and troops in need receive the appropriate mental health care. In 2014, veterans accounted for 8.5 percent of the total U.S. population, but a staggering 18 percent of suicides, with the highest risk to those middle-aged or older.
Here in South Jersey we have seen tangible progress during the past four months to improve the accessibility to care and quantity of services available, including mental health, for our veterans. From a dozen new medical and administrative staff at our community-based outpatient clinics to increases in approvals for hardship waivers, the Department of Veterans Affairs has finally heard our countless concerns and responded. The expanded Vineland clinic and additional services, particularly via tele-health, are coming online later this year.
Furthermore, I led the New Jersey Congressional delegation in convincing the VA to simplify their telephone systems at VA Medical Centers to allow veterans in crisis to push a single button to be immediately connected to professional counselors. Based on an observation from local veteran Joe Griffies and without requiring congressional approval, the “Press 1, Save 1” initiative has been fully active for all VA medical centers serving New Jersey veterans since May and is being adopted at facilities nationwide.
VA resources are only part of the equation. Recognizing community involvement is needed in response to this national epidemic, the VA has launched a social media campaign calling on family members, friends, colleagues and employers to #BeThere for the veteran or active duty service member in their lives. Early engagement is key to preventing a situation from spiraling into a crisis. Find more information at www.VeteransCrisisLine.net/BeThere with confidential online chats available with qualified care professionals 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. These resources are in addition to the VA’s toll-free number (1-800-273-8255) and text message option (838255). A veteran in crisis need not be enrolled in the VA to receive immediate mental health assistance.
It is important for South Jersey veterans and military families to know that help is available to them as various organizations throughout our region and my office stand ready to assist. Veterans needing to speak with a mental health professional should contact one of the four VA community-based outpatient clinics in Cape May, Northfield, Sewell or Vineland. Additionally, the Vet Center in Ventnor (6601 Ventnor Ave. Suite 105) specifically focuses on social and psychological services to all South Jersey veterans, regardless of discharge status or enrollment in the VA. The center accepts walk-in appointments and can be reached at (609) 487-8387 while the VA’s mental health website is www.mentalhealth.va.gov.
If there is a question or concern about VA services, please contact my Mays Landing office by calling 1-800-471-4450 or (609) 625-5008. Additional resources and available local services for South Jersey veterans can be found on my website at www.lobiondo.house.gov/resources/veterans.
Our military personnel and veterans have stood up in defense of our nation and each of us; it is our obligation to do the same for them.