Serving Veterans

Marquette County Senior Provider Network learns about community resources

A service member exchanges a hug with a loved one. Wallner’s presentation highlighted the importance of family and community support for veterans. Programs in the area such as U.P. Veterans SERVED can provide a fun and comfortable environment for military members, veterans and their loved ones to develop camaraderie with others who have shared experiences. (Stock photo from Pixabay)

MARQUETTE — There are nearly 30,000 veterans in the Upper Peninsula, comprising roughly 10% of the area’s population.

At Tuesday’s meeting of the Marquette County Senior Provider Network, attendees had a chance to learn about resources available for veterans in the area, as well as a mental health first aid training program that can be tailored to veterans, military members, their families and those who work with them.

“I cover all 15 counties in the U.P. working with veterans and military families,” said Jason Wallner, who is the regional veteran navigator for the Upper Peninsula, a certified mental health first aid instructor and a veteran himself. “My primary focus is getting them access to mental health and substance use disorder care, treatment and recovery.”

To help veterans and their families navigate an often complex system of resources, Wallner can conduct a basic intake assessment with a person to determine their needs and eligibility for services. One of the reasons for veteran navigators like Wallner, he said, is that over half of veterans don’t qualify for services through Veterans Affairs.

“I participate in VA health care and VA benefits, but not every veteran has that,” Wallner said. “One of the interesting things is you can serve 20 years — let’s just say in the Michigan National Guard, like I have; without my combat deployment, without that activity, I would have not qualified for VA benefits.”

A mental health first aid instructional booklet is pictured. Wallner shared information about mental health first aid trainings available in the Upper Peninsula during his presentation. (Journal photo by Cecilia Brown)

Many providers don’t realize this, and will refer a veteran in crisis to the VA when the veteran may not be eligible for VA benefits. This is where the role of a veteran navigator comes in, Wallner said.

“It can be as quick as a simple referral, or ongoing work with an individual to help peer support them, and mentor them through it and coach them along the way to get those resources,” he said. “We want to make sure that they’re all being served. Because having served this country, whether you qualify for VA or not, you’re still a veteran and you deserve those services. So that’s a big portion of what we do.”

It’s important to recognize if a veteran may be dealing with a mental health crisis and help to connect them with resources through the community or the VA, Wallner said, as “across the country, approximately 20 veterans die of suicide each day; and that’s a significantly high number.”

“Those 20 individuals per day that die by suicide, I believe it’s only six of them that are even involved in the VA; and three of (those) six actually received services from the VA for suicide prevention,” he said. “So trying to get those individuals and provide them with resources they need in that aspect is important; and building a more robust network through mental health first aid programs that are out there to make the community aware.”

With around one in four active duty military members showing signs of a mental health condition, mental health first aid training can be helpful for military members, veterans, their families and friends, as well as providers who work with them, Wallner said.

Informational material on veteran mental health and mental health first aid provided by Wallner is shown. (Journal photo by Cecilia Brown)

“The biggest part of it is identifying risk factors and warning signs of mental health problems,” Wallner said.

Mental health first aid training programs are offered by Wallner and other certified instructors throughout the U.P., he said. There are general classes, as well as classes that focus on specific populations, such as veterans.

The veterans-focused course covers military culture and its relevance to mental health, specific risk factors faced by service members and their families, how to reach out to those who are reluctant to seek help and more.

Attendees learn the basics of how to respond to a mental health crisis, with a focus on the ALGEE system: Assess the risk of suicidal harm, Listen non-judgmentally, Give reassurance and information, Encourage appropriate professional help, and Encourage self help.

“Like CPR, it prepares participants to interact with a person in crisis and connect the person with help,” Wallner said. “So just like if you find somebody who received an injury, if you’re CPR-qualified, you can do just enough to get them to the next level of care. That’s really what mental health first aid is all about. You’re not there to diagnose, you’re not there to treat, you’re there to be that initial responder.”

Jason Wallner, the regional veteran navigator for the Upper Peninsula, a certified mental health first aid instructor, and a veteran himself, speakers during a Marquette County Senior Providers meeting held at Lost Creek Tuesday. Wallner shared his knowledge of resources for area veterans, as well as mental health first aid programming and training in the area. (Journal photo by Cecilia Brown)

A person can become certified in mental health first aid for three years after taking one of the eight-hour classes. There are 16 certified instructors in the U.P., Wallner said. For more information on a class near you, visit www.mentalhealthfirstaid.org or email info@mentalhealthfirstaid.org.

“I can’t stress enough how amazing this program is,” said Julie Shaw, co-chair of the Marquette County Senior Provider Network and associate director at the SAIL Disability Network of the U.P.

Wallner and Shaw also spoke about U.P. Vets Served, which is offered by SAIL throughout the U.P. The program hosts free monthly events and excursions for military members, veterans and their families.

“U.P. Vets Served is a program for veterans and their families and is about building camaraderie amongst the military families,” Shaw said.

For example, Wallner and Shaw recently took a group of 15 to Bond Falls and Agate Falls, and plan to offer other outdoor excursions over the summer.

It gives attendees a chance to connect with one another and build friendships in a welcoming environment, which can “bring them back that camaraderie that they may have been missing since their time in service,” Wallner said.

The program is open at no cost to anyone who is serving or has served and is not limited to combat veterans, they emphasized. It is also open to the families of military members and veterans, with children of any age welcome. Events are held regularly throughout various communities in the U.P. To find an event near you, visit www.upsail.org/events. To register, call 905-228-5744, email upvetsserved@upsail.com.

Wallner can be contacted at veterannavigator@northcarenetwork.org.