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VA Launches Effort to Prevent Veteran Suicides

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ST. PETE, Fla. (WWSB)--According to a study from the Department of Veterans Affairs an average of 20 veterans commit suicide every day. Now the VA is launching an initiative called "Reach Vet" to help prevent suicides and be more responsive to the mental health needs of patients.

Kim Gillespie is just one of nearly a million veterans living on the Suncoast who aren't getting the mental health care they need.

"I didn't know what was wrong with me," Gillespie said.

A recent study by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration shows that only half of returning vets who need mental health care receive services.

The battle they're fighting is over the stigma associated with treatment. Alfonso Carreno is the chief of mental health at Bay Pines VA Health Care System. He says the VA is working to end the stigma.

"It is easier for me to say I have chest pain and cardiac disease then for me to say I have depression, that I'm not feeling well and that I think everything is hopeless and it's better off to die," Carreno said.

An estimated 22,000 vets used mental health care services at Bay Pines in 2016. Clinics screen vets for depression, PTSD, substance abuse and suicidal ideation. Suicide has become the top clinical priority of the VA secretary after the number of incidents began to skyrocket in recent years.

"It doesn't spare anybody," Carreno said. "We all know somebody who knows somebody or a friend or a family member or a colleague that has gone through suicide. "

In response, Bay Pines launched a program in April called "Reach Vet."

"It identifies the top one percent of veterans at risk just by reviewing the health records of these veterans," Carreno said referring to an electronic database of veterans. "These names are provided to the clinicians so they can reengage the veterans or enhance the care so they can reduce the risk of suicide."

Still Carreno says nearly 70% of veterans are not getting any assistance from the VA.

"Many times, some of the patients are not returning to care. They choose to cancel an appointment," Carreno said. "So by identifying these veterans we have the providers and the staff to reach out to them an reengage them into care."

That's exactly what happened to army veteran Kim Gillespie after she missed an appointment with her primary care doctor.

"Once they assessed me in mental health they realized I needed impatient care," Gillespie said.

The former communications specialist was sexually assaulted while serving overseas in Germany. After that incident, she got out, returned home and became detached from her family. She decided moving to Florida was her next best option, but the trauma of her attack soon took it's toll.

"Self-medication increased. I was inconsistent at work, I couldn't keep relationships, I started having encounters with law enforcement," Gillespie said. "Overall, my life really started to spin and spiral out of control."

After months of isolation and barricading herself in her apartment, the battle she was fighting then brought her to her darkest moment.

"Not knowing what was wrong with me... the only end result I could think of at that time was taking my own life," Gillespie said.

It's a thought many veterans like Gillespie go through. In fact, an estimated 20 veterans commit suicide each day.

The suicide prevention team at Bay Pines is using analytic tools, outpatient care and education to reduce that number to zero.

"Didn't matter if it was 20 veterans a day or three veterans a day or two veterans a day that committed suicide... one is too many," Carreno said. "So our goal is to aspire to really minimize suicide in all veterans."

The specialized programs at Bay Pines also include daily schedules filled with classes like trauma education, anger management and coping skills. Gillispie says those classes help her better understand what she's suffering from.

"The VA with a team is the one thing I really differentiate from any other place I could go," Gillespie said. "It's not just one doctor here, it's a team of doctors. From nutrition, to direct therapy, spiritual guidance if that's something that you choose, to help get my life on the right track."

Being on that right track is where Carreno says you can help. He says engaging with someone can be the difference between life and death.

"In one moment you have an intent of really ending your life--but it may be that with some intervention, that turns around at that moment again and you postpone it and you say no no, not now," Carreno said. "That's the opportunity that we have."

After six months of treatment, Gillespie says she's heading home on July 13, knowing how to cope and take life one step at a time.

"I'm excited, I'm a little fearful, but I know I'm not going to go home alone. The VA is also going home with me. I know in my heart the change that I want to be today is totally opposite of who I was before."