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Homeland group gets info from VA on mental health

By Staff | Oct 30, 2015

An informative session on how first responders can and should respond to Veterans in crisis was the topic of the Jefferson County Homeland Security and Emergency Management’s quarterly luncheon this week.

Michelle Cooke, Deputy Chief of the Mental Health Service at the VA Medical Center in Martinsburg was the speaker for the day. The focus of her presentation was addressed to first responders: police, fire and rescue personnel, who may come in contact with Veterans who may be in distress.

In her talk, she stated that there are three sections in the mental health service arena at the VA. The first is inpatient acute psychiatry; the second is outpatient and the third is a mental health residential and rehab program.

In addition, the VA offers many outreach programs including, but not limited to a PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) program, a homeless vets domiciliary program, a center for addiction treatment and a health maintenance program. Many of these programs offer domiciliary or residential options.

“We have 312 domiciliary,” Cooke said. “But our goal is, as of Jan. 1 to have zero homeless vets in Berkeley County. Right now we are down to six homeless that we are aware of.”

The VA’s mental health services include an inpatient/acute care facility for short term psychiatric care; an abuse detox center and the HOPE center for outpatients. Veterans who may be in crisis should call 800-273-8255 and press 1 for the Crisis Hotline.

“This crisis hotline works,” Cooke explained. “In the last year, we had 255 calls through the line,”she added.

In addition to these offerings, the center also has a specialized women’s unit with the motto “She served, she deserves.” Unfortunately, Cooke shared, the primary usage is for substance abuse.

In addition, the VA Mental Health Center now offers a Veterans Justice Outreach where veterans may avoid unnecessary criminalization of mental illness, extended incarceration among vets by ensuring that eligible justice for involved Veterans is given in a timely manner. David Gowers, 304-263-0811. can be contacted to aid those who may find themselves in legal situations exacerbated by mental health issues.

In speaking to the first responders in attendance, Cooke stated that there are ways they can react to Veterans to help alleviate any given situation from accelerating into a confrontation. She said that verbal and non-verbal communications are key.

“Their perception becomes their reality,” she said. “They deal with issue how they perceive them.”

She explained that first responders, and anyone dealing with Veterans in crisis should first and foremost remain calm. They should enlist cooperation from the patient through a conveyance of non-trheatening posture and a respect for the patient’s personal space.

Facila expressions, which are often difficult to control, are also a key to dealing calmly with a patient as are hand and arm gestures. Verbal communication, through the use of a calm, soothing tone, can also help in a volatile situation.

Medical and physical diagnoses often complicate situations which make it more difficult to assess and communicate. First responders, should, Cooke said, give their undivided attention to the veteran, listen carefully and allow silence for reflection. She suggested using re-statements to clarify what the patient said as well as to ensure the patient that the responder is listening.

“Veterans are not difficult, but are often in difficult situations,” Cooke explained. Many have returned from stressful assignments and deployments that have led to many issues both mental and physical.

Cooke encouraged anyone who either is a veteran who may need some assistance or anyone who knows of one to call her office at 304-263-0811, ext. 4014 or ext. 4553.