Statically, as you read this a veteran somewhere is contemplating taking their own life. At one time, data from the Department of Veterans Affairs spoke of 22 veterans a day killing themselves; today the data suggests 17 a day complete suicide.
“During that second deployment, my best friend tried to commit suicide,” said Brad Ocilka.
Brad is an Army veteran whose own personal journey brought him to the doorstep of what the VA data suggests.
“After I came home for my second deployment, about six months after, got a call that my cousin who was in the Air Force actually did complete suicide,” he said. “And so, it was at his funeral that really, the seed took life. And I knew that I wanted to help in some sort of capacity.”
He went to school, hit the books and became a therapist to help his fellow veterans crawl out of the dark space.
“One thing I really make sure to tell people when they come into the program, and I kind of do that initial kind of first talk is I'm never going to pretend to know what you've been through.” Ocilka said. “Your experiences are going to be completely different than mine, different than someone else's. But I can understand because having been on that side of both military and law enforcement, I can understand where you're coming from.”
He’s a therapist for the Help for Heroes program within Beckett Springs behavioral health, a program offered at six different locations across the country, including the Beckett Springs location in West Chester.
“We opened almost a year ago, we opened our inpatient track. And that has seen significant growth as well, ever since we opened it,” said Wendy Gilkey, director of business development for Beckett Springs.
She says the goal of the Help For Heroes program is to create a safe place for veterans and first responders, some of whom are also veterans, to go and receive the support necessary for now and beyond.
“When we discharge them from our program, we know right, that they're still going to need resources. So we make sure that they have the appropriate resources once they're discharged out in the community to continue to be successful,” said Gilkey.
She added that by setting up the hand-off they can ensure the patient has the support in place to continue their successful healing journey.
Ocilka said the combination of solitude during the pandemic and the images from the military withdrawal from Afghanistan have played a role in the surge in veterans coming through the door.
“So the biggest need that we're seeing is particularly those veterans suffering from the umbrella term that we always hear as PTSD,” he said. “But it's really interesting that over the last six months, there's been about a 55% increase in the demand for mental health. And so those coming in are those that have never really processed trauma.”
They’re not alone in the increase call for mental health treatment. The Cincinnati VA Medical Center saw an increase of around 10% of mental health encounters with patients. Data provided by the CVAMC shows 43,075 encounters in FY2021 over 39,289 in FY2019.
“What that looked like is before the pandemic, we were running about 90% in person care, and only about 10% virtual. As soon as the pandemic hit, we immediately change to only 30% in person. And we're able to do 70% of our care virtually,” said Ashley Spilley, acting nurse manager at the Cincinnati VA Medical Center.
She said going virtual allowed them to maintain contact with veterans and, in fact, they found younger, more tech-savvy veterans find the virtual connection more accessible without the drive, waiting room and other potential frustrations interfering with the therapy.
“They're still wanting to receive their care that way. So, I think it's definitely going to remain a staple of how we how we deliver care,” she said. “They have more control over the situation, you know, their control what their environment is, they can access it through their phone, if they want to, they can, you know, do it from the comfort of their home, where they feel most comfortable. And that's a big thing with mental health too, is you got to have that safety.”
While stigma surrounding mental health has been an issue within the active military and then translated to veterans in the post-service life, Ocilka encourages veterans having challenges to reach out.
“I think that that is definitely something that, as part of the awareness and mental health within the veteran community, has made its biggest stride is getting rid of that stigma,” he said. “It's okay, to reach out for help, you know, and you're not less than you're not, you know, any weaker.”
You can reach out 24 hours a day to the Veteran Crisis Hotline by calling 1-800-273-8255 and Press 1. You can also call Beckett Springs 24 hours a day to get help from the Helps for Heroes program by calling 513-854-0913.