Wisconsin VA works to reach rural veterans and tackle mental health

FOND DU LAC — For veterans like Deborah Minger of Fond du Lac, accessing veterans’ services isn’t always easy.

“It’s kind of a motivation for me to go to Milwaukee or go to Appleton,” Minger said. “It seems like it takes a long time to get appointments. Some vets are disabled and can’t make that trip.”

According to the Wisconsin Department of Veterans Affairs, 67% of the state’s veterans live in rural areas far from VA resources.

“Basically, on average, 17 to 20 veterans die by suicide every day,” said Milwaukee VA psychiatrist Michael McBride. “So that needs to be addressed by reaching out to veterans, especially in rural areas where we know our access to care is not what we want it to be.”

The Milwaukee VA hosted a Mental Health Summit in Fond du Lac on Tuesday to try to reach out to these rural veterans and learn what issues are most important to them.

“Since the pandemic, we’ve really been offering more video conferencing, tele-mental health, and that’s given us a chance to reach veterans across the state,” McBride said. “But it also raises the issue of high-speed internet, and about 30% of veterans who live in rural areas don’t have internet access. That’s another issue we need to address.”

At the summit, the Wisconsin Department of Veterans Affairs announced it was opening a new facility in Fond du Lac, hoping to expand services to veterinarians.

“To those veterans in our rural areas who may be struggling, I want to tell you: you are not alone,” said Wisconsin Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Mary Kolar. “Today’s summit at Fond du Lac is an example of our concern for you.”

Veterans in the Fond du Lac area said this could make it easier to access services.

“I think I would probably grow in terms of the perks I use,” said veteran Richard Ewald. “In terms of the medical aspects, being a bit closer, I could look at other benefits that I think I can participate in that I’m not doing right now.

When it comes to helping veterans, the stakes have never been higher.

In 2020, the suicide rate for veterans was 57.3% higher than for non-veteran American adults. That’s according to the Department of Veterans Affairs’ 2022 Annual Veteran Suicide Prevention Report, released Monday. The report said veteran suicides fell for the second straight year, but the VA said the job was not nearly done.

“Mental health, especially suicide prevention, is the number one goal of the VA nationwide,” McBride said.

Veteran Mark Flower said serving in the military had a devastating effect on his mental health.

“I was a drug addict and an alcoholic for a very long time. Suicidal ideation was, I won’t say daily in my brain, but constantly and in my brain,” Flower said.

Now Flower is working with Captain John D. Mason’s Veteran Peer Outreach Group to help other veterans like him.

“Life is good today because I had the help I needed and the peer support stuff that we have in Wisconsin,” Flower said.

VA officials said it was part of a larger national effort to reach underserved veterans in rural communities and address life-saving mental health issues.

“Today we focus on veterans,” Kolar said. “And by helping veterans, we’re helping everyone in our community, making sure people get the help they need.

If you are having a mental health crisis, you can call the 24/7 Suicide and Crisis Hotline at 9-8-8, and press 1 for specific services to veterans.

About Marc Womack

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