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Dallas VA conference discusses clergy’s role in suicide prevention

By JASMINE AGUILERA

Source: Dallas News
Published: Sunday 08 February, 2015

Reginald Robertson, an Army veteran, was at the lowest point in his life. He was angry about being homeless and dealing with a divorce, alcoholism, unemployment and post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.

He tried to commit suicide by swallowing much of his medication. “Anger comes in, because you feel like you’ve just let yourself and your family down,” he said.

The pills weren’t enough to kill him, but were enough to push him to reach out for help — including spiritual guidance.

He is one of thousands of veterans nationwide who have turned to clergy. A 2013 report published by the Journal of Religion and Health found that 12 percent of veterans surveyed sought spiritual consultation. About 47 percent said they were very likely to seek help from spiritual counselors.

With that in mind, since 2008, the VA and the U.S. Department of Defense have been exploring ways to incorporate spiritual guidance into service members’ mental health care. Many soldiers returning from war describe feelings of guilt or an inability to forgive themselves for things they’ve seen or done.

About 59 percent of chaplains in the VA system and 79 percent in the active-duty military said they perceive that veterans and service members commonly seek help from clergy instead of a mental health care provider, according to a 2013 report published by the VA and the Pentagon.

And over 80 percent of chaplains working in the VA system or in the active-duty military said it’s not uncommon to meet a veteran or service member who is suicidal, according to the survey.

In the early 1990s, just a few years out of the Army, Robertson sought help from both chaplains and therapists at the Dallas VA Medical Center. “I learned that life is hard, but not hard enough to kill myself,” he said.

With clergy, veterans often reveal very personal information about their relationships, family and work, said Bill Cantrell, associate director of chaplaincy for the Mental Health and Chaplaincy program.

That is information that the patient may not feel comfortable revealing to anyone else, he said, speaking at a recent suicide prevention conference in Dallas.

In 2010, the VA and the Pentagon launched an official strategy that included establishing collaborations between mental health care and chaplaincy at seven VA centers across the U.S., including the VA North Texas Health Care System, the second-largest in the country.

Cantrell, who is also a Navy chaplain at the Mid-Atlantic Mental Illness Research, Education and Clinical Center in North Carolina, said suicide rates among veterans and service members are increasing and this strategy could save lives.

“Typically, people don’t come to you and say, ‘Hey, doc,’ or ‘Hey, chaps, I have a religious problem, or I have a mental health problem,’” he said. “They come to you because they are suffering; they are in pain. Chaplains [always provide] a safe place to turn to so the healing process can begin.”

Latest suicide rates published by the Pentagon show that there has been an increase in the rate of suicides per 100,000 service members in the nation’s reserve component, from 19.3 percent in 2012 to 23.4 percent in 2013.

The rate of suicides in the National Guard has also increased slightly from 28.1 percent in 2012 to 28.9 percent in 2013.

In the same period, the rate of suicide in the active component of the military decreased from 22.7 percent to 18.7 percent.

Robertson is now a peer support specialist at the Dallas VA Medical Center, where he helps other veterans dealing with mental illness through their treatment process.

He was on active duty for 13 years as an Army administration specialist. In 1983, he spent 180 days in Grenada, a small island nation north of Venezuela, where he witnessed the deaths of many people. He said this led to his PTSD.

“For me, spirituality helped me channel certain things, like control,” he said. “Everyone wants to be in control of everything — that’s what you’re raised to do. But we find out that we don’t control anything except the things we do, and sometimes not even that. Spirituality has taught me to let go of that control.”

At the Dallas VA Medical Center, Dr. Reed Robinson, a psychologist, works with a team of 18 psychologists and social workers to help veterans in need of mental health care. Robinson has worked closely with Lannie Lake, a chaplain, and his team of 20 to establish the collaborative in Dallas.

“Most vets are aware that chaplaincy is at the VA and they seek it out on their own,” Lake said. “The focus of this collaborative is to give veterans every resource for their care possible.”

Lake said that as part of the collaborative, which was established in March 2014, he and Robinson have worked with four or five patients.

“Some might think that this is an effort to push religion onto our veterans. This could not be farther from the truth. If it is an area people express they are struggling with, we take a neutral yet supportive stance,” Robinson said.

Dr. Barbara Van Dahlen, founder and president of Give an Hour, a national nonprofit that specializes in providing free mental health care to service members, said that as people come in all shapes and sizes, so should treatment.

“Our service members sometimes engage in operations that result in loss of life. This often results in spiritual, moral questions or challenges that contribute to pain and suffering,” said Van Dahlen, who is also a clinical psychologist.

She said one area of concern is whether those providing spiritual guidance have adequate knowledge of mental health conditions.

A component of the Mental Health Care and Chaplaincy involves an 11-month training program for chaplains to better understand mental health care. Lake, the Dallas chaplain, said there are 13 students who work in the chaplaincy program at the Dallas VA, three of whom are currently receiving training in mental health care.

Van Dahlen added that, considering recent issues involving wait times for care at VA centers, chaplaincy and similar support programs could be exactly what a patient needs while waiting to see a mental health care provider. But it’s important that chaplains and mental health care providers stay in close communication.

Robertson is now remarried. He continues to struggle with PTSD, but he has learned how to cope with the illness and tries every day to help others.

“Some think that being labeled as having PTSD is going to disable them. It’s hard dealing with the stigma and having to see a psychologist or psychiatrist,” he said. He added that he thinks integrated programs like the Mental Health and Chaplaincy program are a “win-win.”

“The more resources you have available for your care, the better you feel about going forward,” he said.

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