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More resources for veterans coming to Atlantic County

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Captain James W. Gilbride serving in the United States Air Force. 

With more than 11,470 veterans living in Atlantic County, there is a great need for more substantial programs, particularly ones focused on helping the overwhelming number of former military personnel who must deal with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, can affect veterans' quality of life in many ways.

From 2001 to 2019, the average number of veteran suicides per day has risen from 16.4 to 17.2, a nearly 5% increase, according to the 2021 National Veteran Suicide Prevention Report.

In order to decrease the number of veteran suicides and to provide more assistance to them, the New Jersey Department of Military and Veterans Affairs (VA), Rowan University and the Atlantic County Sheriff’s Office have come together to create a new program for all veterans who may be suffering in or around Atlantic County.

That new program will be known as the Veteran Peer Support Program Atlantic County Mobile Crisis Response Team. Planning, hiring and coordination for the services that will be provided have already started and the intent is to go live with a community engagement event in early December.

This program is intended to provide greater support to veterans outside the normal clinic services and hours.

One facet of the new program will be the "veterans helping veterans" approach it will take. The idea behind this approach is that no one can really know what someone else is going through, but peers at least have a shared experience to offer. This "peer specialist" approach allows veterans to bond with those assisting them by sharing their stories and common experiences.

”In many cases, veterans are often more comfortable talking and initially working with individuals with shared-life experience. Having veterans helping veterans is a critical component that will not only help with access and engagement but also help to save lives,” said Vince Kane, director of the Wilmington VA Medical Center.

Kane said the program depends on cooperation between the VA and the community in order to connect those seeking help with healthcare and other services that will allow them to fully return to the communities.

Outpatient mental health services, case management and new additional crisis response are all part of what will be offered. The Veteran Peer Support Program Atlantic County Mobile Crisis Response Team will have several touch points, such as the Atlantic County Sheriff’s Office and the VA Community Based Outpatient Clinic in Northfield.

The Northfield, community-based outpatient clinic, or CBOC, has a client list of roughly 1,200 patients, a high number that is driving the move from its existing 11,200-square-foot facility to one roughly three times its size. While the construction of this new clinic is awaiting approvals, there's considerable community and veterans support to have it completed by 2023.

Local Vietnam war veteran Marco Polo Smigliani said community clinics such as these, especially in South Jersey, have been "literally, lifesavers."

The local facilities help area veterans get assistance without the need to take long bus rides to clinics in Wilmington and Philadelphia. They also let veterans get treatment from local doctors.

"This is the reason we need dire help for the construction of our new clinic in Northfield,” Smigliani said.

Kane said the mobile crisis unit and Hope One, a mobile addiction treatment van, will serve as the major source of outreach and engagement and will work closely with the VA, community providers, local law enforcement, courts and other stakeholders.

“This veteran-centric approach targets high-risk veterans and engages them with both VA and community resources,” Kane said.

What brought this approach into focus was the coming together of veterans, elected officials and community members who recognized the limited number of mental health resources in South Jersey. A more drastic approach was needed to help veterans connect to the services they needed.

“Atlantic and Cape May counties were open to being progressive and wanting to try new models," Kane said. "The Atlantic County community was open to establishing a peer specialist framework and Wilmington has a strong outreach program where Veterans helping Veterans was already established throughout public engagement."

Rowan University’s School of Osteopathic Medicine was just awarded a $750,000, VA-funded grant to support a suicide prevention effort. Through that grant, the VA and Atlantic County Sheriff’s Office will work with Rowan to ensure veterans have the access to care both within the VA and their community.

Those involved say the Veteran Peer Support Program Atlantic County Mobile Crisis Response Team will demonstrate a new model of care that the VA will evaluate for use elsewhere. Using peers to work with community partners and to help extend treatment beyond the walls of traditional mental health clinics is unique and the VA is confident it can work well starting in Atlantic County.

Lessons learned from this new program and approach will be applied elsewhere to help prevent and end suicide among all veterans in every county and state.

“It is important to note that Hope One serves both veterans and nonveterans and their services are available for New Jersey residents,” Kane said. "The goal is to streamline services and have one team with a VA component embedded within the existing team."

For additional information, Atlantic County residents can call 609-909-7200. 

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