VA teaches local police to identify mental health issues in vets

Jonathan Kaupanger
January 17, 2018 - 1:21 pm

Adults with mental illness are more likely to be victims of violence and more likely to commit a crime, according to a study by the National Institute for Mental Health.

Researchers found that 23.9% of adults with a mental illness commit a violent act and 30.9% of mentally ill adults have been victims of violence.

Odds are very high that police will come in contact with someone who has a serious mental illness, many times in the capacity of responding to criminal victimization.

This is why the mental health department of VA’s Ralph H. Johnson Medical Center (RHJMC) in Charleston, South Carolina is been training local law enforcement agencies how to recognize symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress and other forms of mental illness, and how best to deal with these situations.

There are a lot of veterans living around the Charleston area. Nearly 10 years ago, the staff at the Medical Center was conducting the usual welfare checks on vets with the local police when someone realized that the next logical step would be to train police officers on how to identify the mental health needs of a person - specifically veterans - while in stressful situations.

Education was key to enhancing the field officer’s judgment, according to Dr. James Mcdonagh, Clinical Psychologist and Local Recovery Coordinator at RHJMC, “they have to extrapolate from the information they have to make a decision about something,” he said. “There is no official guidebook that says under these circumstances they should do X, Y, and Z.”

Mcdonagh and Dr. Mark L. De Santis, the Suicide Prevention Coordinator, Licensed Clinical Psychologist and Neuropsychologist at RHJMC and also Assistant Professor at the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Military Division at the Medical University of South Carolina, conduct the training and work with each agency to find out the specific needs of the local area. Last year they held 26 courses with the Charleston city police department alone to train them on specific issues associated with veterans.

The training is meant to break down the stigma of suicide and mental health – and also for being a police officer. This is done by something very simple, just sitting next to the person in need and asking questions to see if there is a lack of purpose, according to De Santis.

In one instance, an officer responded to a call and went through his training. The individual who was in need did admit that he was having issues, so it was arraigned to take him to the VA hospital.  “He turned to the police officer and told him that because of you and how you sat down and spoke to me, I actually told you the truth,” De Santis recalled.  “I was just waiting for you to leave to take my life.”

This program is funded by the VA as part of community outreach. About seventy percent of the veterans in their local area are not in VA care.  And while the number of people who die by suicide are still too high for De Santis, he said for males who are in VA care –those numbers are coming down. “I think one of the biggest messages [for veterans] is that we care.”  He continued, “We’d like to get you help as best we can, and so by us interacting with other agencies in the community we actually help them to get better care and get veterans in with us as safe as possible.”

Mcdonagh and De Santis are working on a community outreach program like this that will be pushed out to a national level.