Milwaukee VA Medical Center
VA leads initiative to address Veteran suicide
Every day, 20 Veterans die by suicide.
The statistic is alarming, and it is one of the driving forces behind the BeThereWis initiative.
“The whole message is ‘Be there for a Veteran,’” said Dr. Bert Berger, manager of the Mental Health Division at the Milwaukee VA Medical Center. “It’s really about making that connection, about being able to talk and provide support.”
The Milwaukee VA is one of more than 25 community agencies that came together in November 2019 to forge the Southeastern Wisconsin Task Force on Veteran Suicide Prevention.
One of the results of that task force is the website BeThereWis.com, an easy, one-stop location with access to a myriad of resources for Veterans in crisis as well as friends and family members looking to help loved ones who are struggling with thoughts of suicide.
The group has also launched the COVID Coach app, aimed at helping people address their mental health needs during the stress brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“With the pandemic, we’re extremely stressed due to having to isolate and quarantine,” Berger said, noting the stress is exacerbated by news of rising COVID deaths, people getting sick and other restrictions placed on our daily lives.
“The whole message is, 'Be there for a Veteran.' It's really about making that connection, about being able to talk and provide support.” Dr. Bert Berger, Mental Health Division manager, Miwaukee VA Medical Center
This stress can be especially acute for Veterans, many of whom are already grappling with problems related to their military service.
“Veterans tend to isolate because of a high degree of post-traumatic stress disorder, because of anxiety, and social isolation is already a problem,” said Dr. Michael McBride, a Milwaukee VA psychiatrist.
“Add on top of this the anxiety everybody is having, and I think it puts a greater disconnect (on Veterans) from the support they require.”
Add in addiction to drugs and alcohol, homelessness and depression, and conditions are ripe for thoughts of suicide.
“When they hit rock bottom in their lives … that is a direct line to suicide,” said Dan Buttery, president and CEO of the War Memorial Center and a member of the task force.
And that’s where BeThereWis.com can help.
The website includes the Veterans Crisis Line (800-273-8255), which can be accessed through a telephone call, text and online chat.
There are links to numerous resources, informational videos and ways those in distress can get help.
It is specifically designed so anyone can “be there” for a Veteran – or anyone – contemplating suicide.
“You don’t have to be a mental health expert to go through this process,” Buttery said. “It is a resource that helps lay persons – the loved ones, the family, the community.”
Buttery, an Iraq War Veteran, knows about the pain suicide can bring. He said that last spring, a family member – a Vietnam War Veteran – committed suicide in front of his spouse.
“He had been struggling for years,” he said, noting that unlike some Veterans who commit suicide, he was active with the American Legion and was not isolated.
“Clearly there had been other issues, and it came to a head. You have all these compounding factors … and when you get a combination of just the right components – boom, it happens. It’s very sad.
“And what hurts is what the family is going through. It’s been very hard.”
Buttery said the suicide reinforces what BeThereWis and the task force are doing.
“We need to get as many people in our community as possible aware of these resources,” he said. “Often, when you talk to somebody who has gone through it, they say, ‘We saw a problem, but we didn’t know what to do.’ There’s a way now to say, ‘I saw a problem, and I went here to see what I can do.’”
Berger noted many Veterans who commit suicide were not getting care through VA, which is dedicated to reducing the number of Veteran suicides.
“We’ve been focusing on making sure we have continuity of care, from a Veteran walking in the front door to getting services, all the way to getting them a job,” he said. “A Veteran can walk in and see a psychiatrist the same day or get an appointment to see a therapist.”
Berger said it is often a family member or loved one who needs to prod a Veteran into seeking care, and BeThereWis can help them do that.
“We want to get them that basic care,” he said. “That’s where we can make connections with the Veteran.
“We hate to see it turn into a crisis. You want the person to get the care when they need it, before it becomes serious.”
COVID Coach app
Another tool launched by the task force is the COVID Coach app, which can be downloaded, for free, onto any smartphone or table.
The app is designed help anyone – not just Veterans – who are struggling to cope during the pandemic.
It helps people manage stress, learn about the pandemic, track goals and access resources and services.
“It allows people to learn about COVID – it has all kinds of educational pieces to it – but it also has a variety of suggestions on how people can cope and find ways of staying healthy through the pandemic,” McBride said.
“I think it’s really a one-stop site for people to go and have another tool to survive.”
The app notes that it is not a replacement for professional help, and Berger said professionals at the Milwaukee VA are standing by to help anyone in crisis.
“We have mental health providers in our primary care clinics, on call, who can come and talk to Veterans, right then and there,” he said.
And Berger stressed that all the tools available through the task force’s work benefit the community as a whole, not just Veterans.
“The VA is not alone. We’re in the community; the Veterans are in the community, living among everybody else,” he said.
“By having these platforms available, if we help the community do better at this, we’re helping the Veterans. So we want to make sure to provide these services.”