INDIANAPOLIS — An Indianapolis organization is reaching out to our veteran population who may be struggling with mental health or housing insecurity.
Recent data from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs finds veterans experience mental health disorders and suicidal ideation at rates greater than the rest of the US population. The percentage of active-duty service members with mental disorders has increased by 65% since 2001, something that is following veterans home.
Dr. Michelle Shumate, Delaney Family University research professor and director of the Network for Nonprofit and Social Impact at Northwestern University, says this is more than just about veteran mental health.
“If we could just provide more counseling, more hotlines that would solve it,” Dr. Shumate said. “But one of the things that they sometimes neglect is the way that what we call the social determinants of health also influence both mental illness and suicidal.”
Dr. Shumate says emerging evidence suggests that the social determinants of health are associated with mental disorders and suicidal ideation. These include things like housing instability, food insecurity, lack of access to transportation, income insecurity, and important social connections.
“For each one of those that is missing, what we call an adverse social determinant of health, Dr. Shumate said. “The likelihood that a veteran will experience suicidal ideations increases by 65%, and the likelihood that they will attempt suicide increases by 45%.”
In an upcoming book, Dr. Shumate talks about in order to address mental health in the veteran population, we need to approach all of the social determinants of health.
One local organization that is trying to address many of these is Helping Veterans and Families (HVAF). They work to make sure veterans have a safe space and skills to get, and stay, independent.
“At the core of all of our programming and services is the case management,” Bryan Dysert, Chief Operating Officer for HVAF said. “It’s the supportive services, so regardless of what program a veteran might find him or herself in. They are receiving that case management.”
The organization has numerous programs and services they offer veterans ranging from street outreach to permanent supportive housing.
In 2020, the organization served 1,453 veterans, including 337 veterans who got into permanent housing and 190 veterans who got employment.
“They’re receiving those supportive services and a core part of all of those conversations is talking about those skills it’s talking about budgeting, is talking about addressing any mental health issues that might be going on any physical health issues that might be going on, any family issues, legal issues,” Dysert said. “That’s all baked into those services that we’re providing.”
The organization has a partnership with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and other organizations to provide housing and re-integration services for homeless veterans. They also have programs to prevent at-risk veterans from becoming homeless.
“We are able to help provide some services that helps them maintain their housing,” Dysert said. “So maybe we can help provide rental assistance to help with, rental arrearages that they haven’t been able to keep up. Utility expenses that they haven’t been able to keep up with, but essentially, if a veteran finds themselves on the brink of being evicted, we could then step in, provide that immediate financial assistance.”
Dysert says the majority of the veterans they work with struggle with some sort of mental health or substance use issue. To help those veterans, HVAF has a therapist on staff to provide dedicated service and point them toward community organizations that can help.
Still, Dysert says they don’t want to force anyone into getting diagnosed.
“Everyone kind of got their own timeline with how they process things and how they how they work through things,” Dysert said. “So we’re not looking to really force treatment on anyone if they’re not ready for it, but we certainly want to be just encouraging and letting those veterans know that we’re here when you’re ready to have that conversation. And we’ll help you the best that we can.”
One thing that Dr. Shumate says may help with veterans seeking help is to have veterans involved in organizations.
“All of my experience working with veterans, it tells me that veterans are more likely to tell another vet what it is that they’re experiencing, and more likely to be convinced that it would be alright to reach out for help than if they have to call a number or go on a web form or even go to an office,” Dr. Shumate said.
That is why HVAF has veterans like Rodney Jackson, who goes to Indy’s homeless camps, serving those in need.
Dysert says they work with these veterans to make sure they are OK and have what they need. He gives an example of one veteran who was living on the streets for 20 years. They brought him food and blankets, talking to him to make sure he was OK.
Eventually, the veteran came in for help and was able to get support services and move into permanent housing.
“That was just really cool to see,” Dysert said. “‘Cause you know, to see someone that had been on, literally on the streets for that long, struggling with an active psychosis disorder to then come into our program, work with case management, be able to move out successfully on his own that that one just always resonated with me.”
To help veterans maintain their independence, HVAF recently created VetWorks, which serves as a multi-phase workforce development program to equip and train veterans experiencing homelessness, and those at risk of homelessness.
“They’ve put in a lot of time and energy over the last several months while they’ve been working here on-site at HVAF,” Dysert said. “Working with their employment specialists working within the various different departments here at the agency, working through various different modules, going through financial literacy classes, budgeting classes, a whole gamut of things as a way for us to continue to help foster and cultivate those soft skills that they can then carry forward for years to come.”
The first class of twelve veterans is set to graduate from phase one of the program Friday before moving on to educational training certification.
Moving forward, Dr. Shumate says she would like to see the coordination of services to make sure organizations serving veterans are held accountable for their efficiency and meet veterans’ needs.
For more information about HVAF and how to get involved, visit their website. The graduation for the first VetWorks class is Friday, November 12 at 1 p.m. at the Veterans Affairs’ Services Center located at 777 North Meridian Street in Indianapolis.