Community collaboration is the key to improving mental health care and preventing suicide among New Hampshire's veterans, Manchester VA Medical Center officials said Tuesday.
Of the 20 veterans who die by suicide each day nationwide, only six typically have received healthcare through the VA in the year before their deaths, Dr. Brett Rusch told attendees at the medical center's annual mental health summit. While the VA recently added two suicide prevention coordinators in Manchester, that isn't enough, he said.
"Without the work of the community to identify those other 14, we have no hope of getting to zero," said Rusch, the center's acting chief of staff. "We can't do it ourselves on the VA side."
That work is ongoing. Two years ago, New Hampshire's Department of Health and Human Services launched a first-of-its-kind program to create military liaison positions in each of the state's 10 community mental health centers and a statewide campaign to encourage health care providers, social service organizations and others to ask patients and clients if they have served in the military.
Democratic U.S. Sen. Maggie Hassan said she has been talking to her colleagues in Washington about expanding the "Ask the Question" initiative to other states. She also described her other efforts, including co-sponsoring a bill Republican President Donald Trump signed last month aimed at reducing wait times and improving the process for veterans seeking benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs and another bill she co-sponsored to expand VA services for female veterans.
"Our veterans obviously have sacrificed selflessly for us," she said. "We can't ever completely repay the sacrifices they've made, but it's our duty as civilians to try every single day," she said.
Rusch, a psychiatrist, is among new leadership assigned to Manchester after a Boston Globe report in July highlighted allegations of substandard care and conditions at the facility. As part of Tuesday's conference, acting Director Alfred Montoya described how officials are working to rebuild the hospital's leadership team, restore trust and improve care while it undergoes a federal review. The center is recruiting for more than 40 jobs, including 15 new positions, he said. A task force also is being formed to make recommendations about the hospital's long-term future and will report to federal officials by March 1.
During a question-and-answer session, one of the hospital's psychologists asked whether mental health staffing levels would be increased to ensure patients can receive ongoing treatment. Montoya said that's under review. He also described seeing the benefits of such care firsthand several years ago, when he suggested a mental health appointment for a World War II veteran he noticed crying outside a primary care office. A month or so later, the man approached him to thank him after attending a group counseling session.
"This is the first time I've been able to let my feelings go," the man told him.