On Thursday, the Pennsylvania Senate Veterans Affairs and Emergency Preparedness Committee convened in Chambersburg to discuss mental health issues amongst veterans. The meeting coincided with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s national directive to improve access to mental health care for military personnel.
Addressing the Tragedy of Veteran Suicides
Sen. Doug Mastriano, R-Chambersburg, and the committee chairman, expressed hope as he observed a decline in suicides among veterans due to recent state initiatives. However, he emphasized the need for continued action: “One veteran suicide is too many and the numbers we see in Pennsylvania constitute a tragedy.”
Various programs have been implemented by the state to address this issue. For example, Brig. Gen. Laura McHugh, deputy adjutant general for the Pennsylvania Army National Guard, discussed an anonymous surveying initiative that helps create tailored risk management plans for individual units.
Challenges and Solutions
Sen. Tracy Pennycuick, R-Red Hill, an army veteran and vice-chair of the committee, highlighted concerns about the closure of in-patient facilities in Coatesville. The closures have posed challenges, including finding alternative housing for 90 in-patient veterans, many of whom are seniors with limited options for housing and employment.
In response to these challenges, Brig. Gen. Maureen Weigl, deputy adjutant general for the state Department of Veterans Affairs, underscored the importance of partnerships with local organizations and nonprofits. Justin Slep, director of Veterans Affairs for Franklin County, also emphasized the need for innovative approaches to mental health, citing the success of programs like Operation Save-a-Vet Save-a-Pet.
Reducing Stigma and Providing Support
Testimonials from various individuals highlighted the necessity of destigmatizing mental health issues and offering support for veterans in need. Bruce Bartz, founder of the Bartz Brigade, spoke about his son Trent’s suicide and the importance of raising awareness about mental health. Cindy McGrew, founder of Operation Second Chance, discussed her organization’s efforts to provide emotional and material resources to veterans.
Veterans Dominique Brown and Elizabeth Cooper, members of Wounded Warriors, shared their experiences with suicidal thoughts and the role of peer support in their recovery. Gold Star parents Mike and Sally Wargo called for increased awareness and efforts to memorialize the estimated 168,000 veterans who have died by suicide across the nation.
Streamlining Processes and Ensuring Efficiency
Sens. John Kane, D-Chester, and Lindsey Williams, D-Natrona Heights, emphasized the importance of efficient processes and the effective use of funds for veterans’ mental health programs. In a joint statement, they said, “We need to do more to streamline these processes and ensure that the non-profits who do this work are able to get to veterans quickly.”