Call for more mental health support at vets symposium

Homelessness, unemployment and access to medical care were all topics of the Veterans Issues Symposium hosted by Minnesota Sixth District Congresswoman Michele Bachmann May 13.

Congresswoman Michele Bachmann opened up the Veterans Syposium May 13. Listening are Thomas Newman (left), American Legion Department Service Office, and Thomas Hanson of the VFW Departmetn Service Office.Photo by Tammy Sakry

Congresswoman Michele Bachmann opened up the Veterans Syposium May 13. Listening are Thomas Newman (left), American Legion Department Service Office, and Thomas Hanson of the VFW Departmetn Service Office.Photo by Tammy Sakry

The symposium, which was held at the Ramsey Municipal Center, featured speakers from Veterans of Foreign War, American Legion, Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs, Minnesota Housing Finance Agency and Veterans Service Organizations.

Each speaker talked about what their agency does for veterans and military families and what issues they are seeing among veterans, including health care, homelessness, unemployment and education.

But the most discussed were health care and mental health issues.

VFW Surgeon General Dr. James Tuorila expressed concern on the mental health issue and the hours care is provided.

What he is seeing and hearing from his clients makes him concerned about the training psychologists receive and the response to veterans in mental health crisis, he said.

One of  the first female patients Tuorila saw came to him after receiving a pension denial from the Minneapolis Veterans Administration (VA).

“She was told she could not have post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) because she was only a Vietnam nurse,” Tuorila said.

When another client asked Tuorila why he was asking about his hobbies, Tuorila found out the man had been told by a VA psychologist he could not have PTSD if he had hobbies.

“I am wondering were this training is coming from. People are being denied because of this,” he said.

The VA hospital and out-patient clinics need to offer more weekend and evening hours, Tuorila said.

Even through the VA has given a directive to increase weekend and evening hours, Tuorila said he actually sees a reduction in the evening hours.

“We need to get the evening hours, especially for the younger veterans. It needs to be a priority,” he said.

Off primary hours are essential for women and men because daytime hours can be a barrier to good health care because younger veterans can not take days off from work, said Barbara O’Reilly, women veteran employment program director.

For 20 years, Tuorila ran a weekly PTSD group meeting in the evenings at the St. Cloud VA. That group now meets twice month.

The 30 to 40 group members have been told the meeting could be changed to once a month and be changed to peer-led rather than psycholist-led, Tuorila said.

The people driving an hour to St. Cloud for the PTSD meeting would not receive travel pay if it is peer-led and it is likely they will no longer come, he said.

There also needs to be improvements in the crisis care and VA mental health care, according to Tuorila.

If a patient calls in for an appointment, they are asked if they are homicidal or suicidal. If so they are directed to another phone number, he said.

One patient, who was neither, was given an appointment with a mental health provider 45 days later. He was in crisis and ended up committing suicide before the appointment, Tuorila said.

The mental health service needs to be improved and the appointments need to be sooner for veterans in crisis, he said.

Benton County Veteran Service Officer George Fielder agrees.

“Mental health service and case management are critical,” he said.

Every day he sees veterans who are making poor decisions because of their mental health issues. But they can’t recognize they desperately need help because they can’t recognize it, said Fielder, who was in the audience.

Tammy Sakry is at tammy.sakry@ecm-inc.com

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