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#FINDINGHOPE: US Secretary of VA works to open mental health dialogue in the armed forces

Robert Wilkie made a visit to Boise this month.
Posted: 11:09 AM, Aug 26, 2019
Updated: 2019-08-26 17:34:18-04

BOISE, Idaho — FULL STORY ON 6 ON YOUR SIDE MONDAY AT 10 P.M.:

The national tragedy of veteran suicide has been a main concern for US Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert Wilkie since his appointment to the job. During his recent visit to Boise, he sat down for an exclusive TV interview with 6 On Your Side's Madeline White.

Since October of last year, every veteran who has come into the VA has received a mental health screening, according to Wilkie. He said they have now screened almost 1 million veterans— but their oversight continues in some who are struggling.

“We follow closely 3,000 of them because we believe that they could be a danger to themselves or to others," said Wilkie.

When it comes to preventing mental crises and suicide in veterans, Wilkie says stigmas need to be broken earlier on.

“It’s a cultural phenomenon that needs to be addressed when that young American first enters the military," said Wilkie.

He said, in the military, mental health issues weren’t always taken seriously.

“In my father’s day, the notion that anyone would express concern or anxiety while in uniform, would have been treated as a one-way ticket out of the service. Well that was fine in a draftee force-- its’ not fine in an all-volunteer force, nor is it helpful for the combat effectiveness of the armed forces.”

He said he’s working to create changes that he hopes will have impacts on generations to come.

“When I was under Secretary of Defense, working for General [James] Mattis, we started the program when people are in boot camp, they start being told about the signs of mental health problems— even something simple like anxiety," said Wilkie.

Through actions of this nature, he hopes to spread awareness on how to identify warning signs.

“They can see it in their comrades, they can see it in themselves, and they keep telling themselves throughout their career, 'It’s alright to go see the chaplain.' It’s alright to tell us, and that attitude then becomes part of the mindset once that individual comes into VA"

And those mental health screenings at the VA are one way Wilkie says his intention to open dialogue on mental health is taking form.

“So, it’s a cultural change that’s been slow and coming— but it is coming," said Wilkie.

If you or someone you know is exhibiting warning signs or having thoughts of suicide, text or call the Idaho Suicide Prevention Hotline at (208) 398-4357 to get 24/7 confidential help from professionals.