U.S. Army Veteran Joyce Letellier never thought she’d be 61-years-old and encouraging others to take control of their mental health. In fact, Letellier didn’t know if she’d even be alive to tell her story.
Letellier says she suffered from depression and suicidal ideation her whole life. She has tried to take her own life four times since 1989. When she first recognized she needed help, she sought mental health treatment with private medical care, but the cost of therapy and medication was too expensive for her to continue the treatment.
“When I found out I was eligible for VA health care, I found hope,” said Letellier, who began seeing a psychiatrist at the Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center in 2006.
Through the VA, Letellier was offered several different treatment options and over the last 13 years she’s engaged in inpatient and outpatient treatment at Charleston VA and received support from programs at other VA’s.
“The VA helped immediately get the help I needed. They send me to treatment when I need it without hesitation” said Letellier. “It didn’t cost me anything.”
Over the years, Letellier has accepted the help of her Charleston VAMC mental health team even when she didn’t want to, even when she didn’t think it was going to work. She always did what the team suggested and found that when she followed their guidance things always got better.
“The VA helped me and is teaching me to save my own life,” said Letellier.
She now has a toolbox of skills that help her work through her anxiety, stress and emotions on her own. A skillset developed through her ongoing commitment to treatment that has carried her through may highs and lows of depression, equipped her with the tools necessary to stop running from stress, and developed an ability to set boundaries in her life.
Letellier has also been able to open communication with her family, a skill that now gives her an incredible support system outside of treatment.
“I’ve come to such a better place in my life,” said Letllier. “They know now that if they start seeing me fall back into depression—they know the signs, they know what to do. We’re able to talk about that now. My family is very proud of me.”
Looking toward the future
“I want to live more today …” said Letellier. “I used to be OK if I was going to die. I was OK with it, but today I don’t want to die. I want to live.”
Today, she’s giving back to help others. She sponsors two women through Alcoholics Anonymous. She’s a sign to them, and others in her group, that there is hope, life and a future, as she celebrates more than one year of sobriety.
“It’s great to be able to show others that it does get better,” said Letellier. “I didn’t think that before.”
“You don’t have to die. There’s help through the VA,” said Letellier. “This is great treatment. It’s not some B- health treatment. It’s not. I would have all my treatment here, no matter what it is, at this VA hospital.”
Treatment at Charleston VAMC
Dr. Hugh Myrick has been helping develop that world-class care at the Charleston VAMC as the Chief of Mental Health for more than 15 years. During his tenure as Chief, Charleston’s mental health service has grown from 62 staff to more than 360 employees supporting Veterans along the South Carolina and Georgia coast.
“The growth in staff at our VA tells you that mental health is a priority and we are hiring to meet the demand and provide access to care for Veterans in need,” said Myrick.
One of the most unique things about the VA is the continuum of care for Veterans. Veterans can walk into the VA and they might be homeless. The VA has a program for that. They might have a substance use disorder. The VA has a program for that. They might need help finding a job. The VA has a program for that. They might have a lump on their arm. The VA has a program for that.
“On the outside [private] medical care and mental health care operate in silos,” said Myrick. “That doesn’t happen here at the VA. We operate in a system that collaborates across all disciplines to do what’s best for our Veterans.”
Suicide prevention is a top priority for the Veterans Health Administration and Myrick states that “suicide prevention is all about access to care and collaborative care.”
“When you look at the data, those that are in VA treatment have a much lower suicide rate—and that makes sense because look at all the services we offer to help Veterans,” said Myrick.
Myrick outlines some of the top initiatives that are helping the Charleston VAMC reach Veterans at risk of suicide.
- Same day access in all mental health clinics.
- Watchful tracking and clinical case review on all high-risk patients.
- Placement of suicide prevention coordinators at the medical center and all outpatient clinics.
- Reduction of opioid prescription rates and increased availability of treatments to reduce and eliminate opioid dependence.
- Use of statistical modeling to help predict who might be at risk for suicided based on more than 30 parameters and using that predicative model to engage patients in mental health treatment.
- Outreach and education in the community, including training local law enforcement teams on suicide prevention and Veteran culture.
One of the major areas for growth in mental health care at Charleston VAMC is telemental health (TMH). Last year Charleston VA completed 32,000 TMH appointments, and in just the first 6 months of 2019, they’ve already completed 22,000; and already exceeded the number of home-based THM appointments from last year.
“To provide the care, where the Veteran is, in a timely manner—that’s what we’re trying to do with mental health at Charleston VA,” said Myrick. “Let’s give Veterans the best treatment possible in the setting that is comfortable and convenient to them.”
Myrick, just like Letellier, encourages Veterans to come get the care and the help they’ve earned.
“The resources are here—the programs and people—it’s all here,” said Myrick.
If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, please call the Veterans Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255 and press 1 or text 838255.