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New collaboration kicks off to address Alabama veterans’ mental health needs

MONTGOMERY, Ala. — A new collaboration between the Alabama departments of Veterans Affairs and Mental Health has officially kicked off, aiming to see the agencies work together to improve both quality and access of mental and behavioral health care resources for veterans.

It’s the result of Senate Bill 135, sponsored by Sen. Andrew Jones, R-Centre, the chair of the Senate Committee on Veterans and Military Affairs, which went into effect on June 1. 

Under the bill, the ADVA and ADMH will collaborate through a series of meetings to identify gaps in existing mental and behavioral health care resources for Alabama’s veterans, who between them and their immediate family members make up about 26% of the state’s population.

“We’re trying to play catch-up with mental health; there’s a lot of theories out there whether it’s social media, increased isolation or what have you, but mental health has become an increasing concern,” Jones told Alabama Daily News last week.

“So that’s part of the impetus for this bill, to bring attention to the specific needs of veterans, their mental health needs, and (to) make sure that we can meet them where they are and get them treated.”

Sen. Andrew Jones is the acting chair of the Senate Committee on Veterans, Military Affairs and Public Safety.

The first order of business under the new law will be for a steering committee to be assembled, the members of which will include Jones, Rep. Chip Brown, R-Hollingers Island, the sponsor of the House version of the bill, as well as ADMH Commissioner Kimberly Boswell, who will chair the committee.

“As we’ve worked on this bill, one of the things that ADVA felt really strongly about, and we do too, is there is substantial information, studies and needs assessments already out there,” Boswell told ADN Thursday. 

“So we don’t believe we need to be initiating some big needs assessments, we believe there’s enough information out there about veterans’ needs, it’s just simply a matter of reviewing that information and identifying the gaps.”

Today, there are nearly 400,000 veterans in Alabama, a not dissimilar to the rest of the country, they are more prone to suicide and drug addition than non-veterans. Kent Davis, ADVA commissioner, previously named expanding mental health resources for veterans as his single-highest priority for 2024.

Alabama lawmakers have devoted considerable resources and state dollars in recent years to expand mental health care resources, among them being the state’s new crisis centers and 988 crisis line.

Still, the demand for mental health care resources among residents, including veterans, has often exceeded the capacity of those resources.

“Only in the last three or four years have we begun to stand up crisis services in our state, and so before that, it wasn’t just veterans that didn’t have access to service, it was every Alabamian that struggled to get access to behavioral health services,” Boswell said. 

“We have focused on all Alabamians up until this point, but the crisis for veterans in our state, particularly the number of suicides, is just so critical that we felt like this coordinated effort was absolutely necessary and that there was an urgent need to address the needs of the veterans in Alabama.”

Among the first things Boswell predicts the steering committee will address is how to accommodate veterans who call the state’s 988 crisis line.

“We know that 31% of the calls we’ve been getting to 988 are veterans calls,” Boswell said. 

“The problem with that is when they do the dial down to 1, (as veterans are instructed to do so via an automated message), you only get the federal resources, you don’t get the resources in Alabama, and so that’s one of the very first things that the committee is going to have to address.”

Kim Boswell as led the Alabama Department of Mental Health since 2020.

One model of mental and behavioral health care for veterans in particular that has already gotten the attention of soon-to-be members of the steering committee are any forms of treatment that involve veterans treating other veterans, something Boswell said is unique to the community.

“We see such value in partnering with the folks that veterans are talking to; the ADVA, the organizations that support veterans like the VFW, those are the trusted advisors to veterans, and people are not going to access mental health services, or often won’t do it unless it’s someone they trust that’s recommending it,” she said. 

“So when it comes to access to care for veterans, it’s got to be a veteran talking to a veteran, or they’re not going to do it.”

Brown, a veteran himself, largely agreed with this sentiment, that veterans are more receptive to care from other veterans. So did Beverly Gebhardt, deputy attorney general for the ADVA, also a veteran having served in the U.S. Air Force.

“I think from a national perspective, there’s been a lot of studies, a lot of work recently in recognizing the fact that veterans do face some different challenges,” Gebhardt told ADN Thursday. 

“Veterans are a complex group, they experience a number of different situations, some of them can be very similar to first responders, but some of them are rather unique to military service.”

Another motivation for the bill was the care offered to veterans from the federal Department of Veterans Affairs, which is often severely underutilized, and often, according to Brown, inept and inadequate.

“Unfortunately in the past, we’ve relied a lot on the federal government as far as the Veterans Affairs administration for mental health care and substance abuse, and as we all know, they just have not done the job,” Brown told ADN. 

“I’m a 50% disabled veteran, so I’m in the federal VA system, and it’s lacking. I’ve heard so many stories of veterans trying to get mental health appointments and not being able to do it through the federal VA.”

The steering committee’s first meeting is expected to be held in mid-August, Boswell said. According to the bill, the committee is expected to have completed a complete review of existing mental and behavioral health care services for veterans by Jan. 1, 2025, and develop a comprehensive plan to address shortages of those services by April 1, 2025.

The committee will then produce a final version of their comprehensive plan to the governor by June 30, 2025 and will have until Aug. 31 to act on the plan. Boswell said that could take the form of a piece of legislation, recommended procedural changes among state agencies or additional funding.

Alabama lawmakers recently allocated $30 million’s worth of opioid settlement money toward various agencies and initiatives, including a $3 million allocation to a veterans’ pilot program. Boswell said that the $3 million allocation was a good starting point for the committee to better be able to execute any recommendations it develops over the next year.

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