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The New Jersey Veteran Journal is an official publication of the New Jersey Department of Military and Veterans Affairs and is intended to serve New Jersey's veterans, their families, friends and concerned individuals and groups. All correspondence should be sent to:
Veteran Journal Editor
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NJ LEADS BATTLE AGAINST SUICIDE
The Soldier soon found himself sitting in the car that now held all his belongings, clutching a bottle of pills and contemplating suicide. He made a phone call instead.
Fortunately, the voice at the other end of the line belonged to Dr. Cynthia Lischick, the full-time director of psychological health for New Jersey National Guard Family Programs, who convinced the Soldier that ending his life was not the answer. In the days that followed, the Soldier was connected with more professionals who ultimately helped him find a new job and a place to live.
The safety net that caught this Soldier here in New Jersey is one of the most comprehensive systems to be created anywhere in America to assist service members, Veterans and their families with mental health issues including suicide prevention, post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury and substance abuse. In the past eight years, New Jersey has created a unique umbrella of organizations and partnerships using a blend of state and federal funding to create a system that is saving lives. It's a system that has helped the state maintain one of the lowest suicide rates in the Army National Guard.
"Suicide prevention is our numberone priority," said Brig. Gen. Michael Cunniff, The Adjutant General. "And it starts with every Soldier and every Airman. We need to look out for each other."
The New Jersey National Guard has made resiliency training a cornerstone of its suicide-prevention efforts to break the negative stigma associated with mental-health issues. In addition to training unit-level suicide prevention specialists, the National Guard has established the Joint Military and Family Assistance Center (JMFAC) located at the Bordentown armory.
Even these measures are no guarantee of success.
In most of the country, our military – particularly the active Army and the Army National Guard -- is grappling with what could only be described as a suicide epidemic. Although the suicide rate for the active Army and Army National Guard leveled off in 2009 after five years of increases, the rates increased over the first seven months of this year and eclipsed more than one a day in July.
Public awareness of this issue was heightened by a Time Magazine cover story in July that not only laid out the grim numbers but put human faces on the tragedy. Two of the most heartbreaking stories were those of Ian Morrison, 26, a West Pointer and attack helicopter pilot, and Dr. Michael McClendon, 37, an obstetrician who had once been an enlisted Soldier on a bomb squad. Both men were captains. Both took their own lives 4,000 miles apart on March 21 after each had repeatedly tried to get help for the deep depression that had overwhelmed them.
The effort to keep our service members from falling through the cracks begins practically the first day they put on the uniform.
After the Soldiers and Airmen of the New Jersey National Guard complete their training and join their units, some of the first people they hear from are chaplains assistants and people like Staff Sgt. Jamie Gayner, who serves as the Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training non-commissioned officer with the 119th Combat Service Support Battalion in Cherry Hill. It's her job to train other leaders about the ways to identify at-risk Soldiers. She also takes it upon herself to be a walking rolodex of resources both inside and outside the military where a Soldier can turn to for anything from help finding a new job to a trained mental health specialist.
"Getting people help when they need it is my passion," says Gaynor, who is majoring in social work at Rutgers University.
Giving service members the tools they need to tackle their challenges before they become a crisis is at the heart of New Jersey National Guard Family Programs. From an office in Bordentown, more than a dozen full-time professionals assist National Guard members and their families with issues ranging from civilian employment, to relationships with spouses and children, to all aspects of mental health. The work done in Bordentown compliments the work done by the staff at eight Family Assistance Centers colocated with Army Guard armories and Air Guard families.
Family Programs takes the lead on all issues involving the reintegration of Soldiers back into their civilian lives following a deployment, with a particular focus on mental health.
The mental health resources at Family Programs were bolstered three years ago with the hiring of Dr. Cynthia Lischick as Director of Psychological Health.
"We remain one of the lowest suicide rates among the states and there's a reason for that. A lot of it is that we have military commanders who understand and have seen to it that we are resource rich."
DR. CYNTHIA LISCHICK AS DIRECTOR OF PSYCHOLOGICAL HEALTH
Melissa Tippett, a Vets4Warriors counselor works the Vet2Vet hotline, a toll free, 24-hour Veterans Helpline, which is run in partnership with the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey. The helpline has been widely emulated by other state and federal agencies. Tippett was injured by a roadside bomb during a tour in Iraq as an Army military policeman. (Photo by Mark C. Olsen, New Jersey Department of Military and Veterans Affairs)
In those years, Lischick has successfully intervened in more than 50 cases where a Soldier was contemplating suicide. Although her main objective is to link Soldiers suffering from mental health issues with other professionals who can provide long-term counseling if needed, she often fills that gap in cases where other treatment is not available. But she's a fierce advocate for Soldiers in helping them immediately access mental health services, often accompanying them to facilities run by the U.S. Veterans Administration – and not leaving until they are screened, prescribed medication if needed, and a follow-up treatment plan established.
"I'm 24/7, 365," Lischick says. "And that's fine because I love my job. I was told when I was hired it would be the best job I'd ever had and it is. This is one of the best National Guard organizations to work with. I have none of the problems I've heard from my counterparts in other places. We remain one of the lowest suicide rates among the states and there's a reason for that. A lot of it is that we have military commanders who understand and have seen to it that we are resource rich."
New Jersey is one of only seven states that provide additional mental health services for Veterans and the only state to extend this assistance to their families.
The state of New Jersey became a pioneer for mental health services for its service members and Veterans nearly a decade ago with the launch of Vet2Vet, a toll free, 24-hour Veterans Helpline – 1-866-838-7654 (1-866-VETS-NJ4).
More than 3,500 Veterans and nearly 1,500 family members have called this number and been connected with one of the dozen Veteran peer counselors who man the phones. The hotline, which is run in partnership with the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey has been widely emulated by other state and federal agencies.
Perhaps the ultimate recognition of the potency of Vet2Vet came in December when the National Guard Bureau selected UMDNJ's University Behavioral Health Care to launch a federally-funded companion service called Vets4Warriors. And it is exactly what its name describes, Veterans helping those still in uniform. The helpline is available to current and former National Guard Soldiers and Airmen from across the country. Since its launch, Vets4Warriors has fielded calls from more than 13,000 Veterans.
The mission of Vets4Warriors is to connect Veterans with the help they need for any mental health issue, and to do it with fellow vets who speak their language. The top issues facing these Veterans – more than one third of whom served in Iraq or Afghanistan – are anxiety, depression, sleeplessness, medical issues, post-traumatic stress disorder.
Many of the callers are just looking to talk to someone who has walked in their shoes.
"They want to hear from someone who knows that PTSD is real, traumatic brain injury is real, that feeling like you're in a dark place and can't get out is real," says Melissa Tippett, a Vets4Warriors counselor who was injured by a roadside bomb during a tour in Iraq as an Army military policeman.
Tippett came home from Iraq with pieces of shrapnel still lodged in her body from the blast and a numbness in half her body. Her most vivid memory of coming home was dropping to her belly and low-crawling through a Walmart parking lot near Fort Polk, La., when a car backfired.
"Someone was walking past me and said something like 'It's OK, you're home now' and I felt a little better," she said. "That's why I love this job. If a service like Vets4Warriors would have been around when I came home, it might have made a big difference in how I dealt with things."
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