Local organizations try to reduce stigma surrounding mental illness among veterans

Mental health and homelessness are two areas that continue to be a problem among veterans.

Wednesday the Tomah VA hosted its third annual Veteran Mental Health and Homeless Summit, bringing together veterans and providers to tackle those two key issues.

Homelessness among vets has declined in recent years, but in 2013, still nearly 58,000 veterans were homeless.

Mental illness is trending the other way, however.

Organizers of the summit said there are lots of local resources available to the men and women serving our country, the focus is enhancing access to that help.

“Our bottom line is always to help the mental health of veterans in the area,” said Tomah VA Psychiatrist and Associate Chief of Staff Dr. David Skripka.

Skripka said meetings or conferences such as Wednesday’s summit where area providers and veterans can come together have tremendous benefits. They give both an opportunity to try to solve the bigger problem surrounding mental illness, the stigma.

“It is a real challenge often asking for help for any kind of mental health condition whether you’re a veteran or not,” Skripka said.

Skripka said some people, veterans especially can find it embarrassing to ask for help, which is why he said in recent years there has been extra effort put on making veterans understand there is no need to feel embarrassed.

“To lower stigma and say, “Even if you’re actively serving in the military, if you have problems with trauma, with depression, say it, speak up, get help,'” Skripka said.

One in three returning troops are being diagnosed with post-traumatic stress syndrome, the most common form of mental illness among veterans, but less than 40 percent of them will seek help according to PTSDUSA.org.

Skripka said this is a growing problem that needs to be addressed and that everyone in attendance is dedicated to helping veterans in different ways. The goal now is finding out how they can all work together to make sure veterans get the care they deserve.

“Wanting to take away that stigma, that’s true in society at large, but it’s been especially an effort for our people who are in the military,” Skripka said.

The Tomah VA began this summit following a presidential executive order issued by President Barack Obama in 2012 to improve access to mental health services for veterans, service members and their families.

If you or someone you know is struggling with a mental illness you can call the Veterans Crisis Helpline 1-800-273-8255, press 1.