Mental health personnel to be added at VA hospital

Sunday, June 17, 2012

POPLAR BLUFF, Mo. -- Additional mental health personnel are expected to be in place at John J. Pershing VA Medical Center locations in Cape Girardeau, Poplar Bluff, Mo., and West Plains, Mo., by Oct. 1.

The expected five new clinicians and one support person will help Pershing better meet the needs of its patients and improve access to care, said Dr. Matthew Geyer, chief of mental health services.

New staff will augment the services already provided. Mental health services see about 5,700 patients annually or about one-third of the almost 19,000 veterans the medical center serves in Southeast Missouri and northeast Arkansas. Services can be accessed 24 hours a day by going to Pershing or any of its clinics, as well as through the crisis hotline, online chat and text message.

"We already have a system in place where we have same-day services," Geyer said, explaining veterans can come in and see a mental health professional the same day, often within an hour. "We will continue that and to engage folks in long-term care where necessary and increase evidence-based psychotherapy services."

The new staff are part of veterans administration plans to add about 1,600 mental health clinicians and nearly 300 support staff to its existing workforce nationwide.

Mental health services at Pershing have seen a rapid expansion in the past three years, he said. It currently has 45 clinicians and support staff.

Homeless veterans

New efforts include connecting with homeless veterans and a veterans justice outreach program.

The 3-year-old homeless veterans program provides access to temporary shelters, housing assistance and vocational rehabilitation, Geyer said.

The SEMO Veterans Treatment Court program is less than a year old and provides services to veterans on probation for felony convictions and addressing substance abuse problems.

"The individuals who seek assistance from the homeless and veterans justice programs often have underlying mental health issues which need to be addressed, as well as substance abuse issues," Geyer said.

These, as well as medical issues, are addressed as part of a wholistic approach to care.

An evidence-based psycho therapy initiative is also new to mental health services in the past three years. These therapies help patients learn to control their thoughts, feelings and behaviors to engage in a more healthy lifestyle, Geyer said.

"Quality of life is dramatically improved without the side effects of medication," he said.

The therapies include cognitive behavioral therapy, which helps veterans focus on the here and now and tie their thoughts and feelings into what they are doing, and prolonged exposure, which helps patients learn to think differently about the trauma they have experienced.

Society is more aware than ever before of mental health needs, Geyer said, and more accepting, although there is a constant battle against the stigma associated with treatment.

There is a strong push for outreach and this is likely to continue with the recent news regarding an unprecedented number of suicides by military members, as well as research regarding traumatic brain injuries, he said. The Associated Press reported that there have been 154 suicides by active-duty troops in the first 155 days of the year, the fastest pace in 10 years of war and more than the those killed in action in Afghanistan this year.

VA has an existing national workforce of 20,696 mental health staff that includes nurses, psychiatrists, psychologists and social workers.

With each additional mental health care provider, a facility could potentially reach hundreds more veterans battling mental illness, according to a news release from Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric K. Shinseki. New providers will join a team that is already actively treating veterans through individualized care, readjustment counseling, and immediate crisis services. Additional staff members also afford opportunities to look long-term and expand into cutting edge PTSD research and to explore alternative therapies.

Shinseki noted that "as the tide of war recedes, we have the opportunity, and the responsibility, to anticipate the needs of returning Veterans."

VA provided quality, specialty mental health services to 1.3 million veterans last year, according to the release. Since 2009, VA has increased the mental health care budget by 39 percent. Since 2007, VA has seen a 35 percent increase in the number of veterans receiving mental health services, and a 41 percent increase in mental health staff.

Eligible veterans can receive mental health services from a licensed professional at any time by going to Pershing or one of its outreach clinics, Geyer said. Clinicians are on call after normal business hours, 24 hours a day, year round.

Veterans can also call the veterans crisis line at 1-800-273-8255, chat online with a professional at veteranscrisisline.net, or receive help by text messaging 838255.

Pertinent address:

3051 William St., Cape Girardeau, MO

1500 N. Westwood Blvd., Poplar Bluff, MO

1211 Missouri Ave., West Plains, MO

Map of pertinent addresses

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