St. Luke’s University Health Network is working with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to provide peer support services to veterans with the goal of reducing veteran suicide in Carbon County. The Victory for Veterans team of certified peer specialists provides outreach, counseling and education to veterans who may feel isolated, are potentially at risk for suicide and need mental health services.
The program will enable veterans to talk with another veteran about their military experiences or difficulty adjusting to civilian life. In addition, the program will assist veterans with challenges of everyday life, such as finding a job, housing, educational and vocational programs and counseling services.
“We know a lot of veterans in Carbon County are struggling,” said Victory for Veterans Manager Robert Brands. “I recently visited a food bank and was disturbed by the number of veterans who were there needing food. We want to help these veterans improve their lives, so they never reach the point of desperation. This is truly a personal passion for me. I consider this my mission – to help veterans contemplating suicide.”
Brands, a Persian Gulf War combat veteran, served in the U.S. Marine Corps from 1987 to 1991 in Operation Desert Shield and Desert Storm. The former Manager of Security and Safety at St. Luke’s Monroe Campus, he started his new role on Nov. 29. The program began offering services in January and expects to serve 50-60 veterans a year. Brands will provide peer counseling and oversee three additional counselors and two care managers, both family members of veterans, who will assist veterans in applying for services available through the VA and other organizations.
The program is funded through a $534,424 grant from the Staff Sergeant Parker Gordon Fox Suicide Prevention Program of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). It is one of many services St. Luke’s provides to those who have served their country through military service.
Certified Victory for Veterans peer support specialists draw upon their lived experiences of recovery from substance use or mental health issues, along with skills learned in formal training, to support veterans struggling with similar problems. Because they can understand veterans’ issues, peer specialists are uniquely qualified to offer practical skills/knowledge, empathy, hope and insight, Brands said.
Carbon County has the highest number of veteran suicides of all the 67 counties in Pennsylvania, a fact that so disturbed Brands that he considered starting his own non-profit organization to provide supportive services to at-risk veterans.
Besides peer support, Victory for Veterans will connect veterans to behavioral health and substance use counseling available through the VA and St. Luke’s. In addition, its case managers will refer veterans to community organizations that provide housing and employment services.
The program is the brainchild of Brands, who has been interested in serving veterans for many years. One day while hiking with his wife Michele, St Luke’s Network Director of Women’s Imaging, the couple pondered whether St. Luke’s would support such an initiative. So, about a year ago, he reached out to Jodi McCloud-Missmer, Administrator of Behavioral Medicine, and Amie Allanson-Dundon, Network Director of Clinical Therapy Services. They favored his concept and suggested he speak with representatives of Penn Foundation, a non-profit, community-based behavioral health provider affiliated with St. Luke’s University Health Network. Penn Foundation is known for its quality mental health and substance abuse programs and exceptional treatment outcomes.
Penn Foundation’s Jane Straw, MA, Practice Administrator of Mental Health Rehabilitation Services, and Patricia Nye, Practice Administrator of Peer Support Services, initiated and secured the VA grant for the program.
Before joining St. Luke’s, Brands worked as a correctional officer. Throughout his career, he has learned to work with individuals in stressful conditions and how to de-escalate emotionally charged situations. In addition, he completed training, funded through the grant, to become certified as a veteran peer counselor. Brands and other peer counselors will travel to meet veterans. He also plans to take them “rucking,” a military term for hiking with a backpack.
“These rucks (hikes) will allow them to express some of the difficulties or barriers they’re facing,” he said. “And it’s my job to help them remove or navigate these barriers and issues.” Many veterans struggle with the transition from military to civilian life. Some refer to it as going from “hero to zero” as they grapple with finding their new role.
The peer specialists work closely with the new behavioral health walk-in clinic at St. Luke’s University Health Network’s Carbon Campus. Open every day, the clinic provides assessment and referral services for anyone 14 years or older in need of mental health services. Also, they collaborate with the Carbon County Veterans Affairs Hub of Northeastern PA, located on the first floor of St. Luke’s University Health Network’s Lehighton Campus. The office is dedicated in memory of combat veteran Chad Peyton, a friend of Christine LeClair, director of Veterans Affairs, Carbon County. Peyton died by suicide in 2021.
In addition, St. Luke’s University Health Network supports the physical and behavioral health care needs of veterans and their families through participation and coordination of veteran health plans: Tricare, Humana Military and Optum, VA Community Care Network.
Individuals who want to speak with a peer specialist or are concerned about a veteran may contact Brands at 272-212-1052. If you or someone you know is considering suicide, call the Carbon County Crisis Line at 570-992-0879.