South Texas VA hosts 2019 Mental Health Summit - South Texas Veterans Health Care System (STVHCS)
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South Texas Veterans Health Care System (STVHCS)

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South Texas VA hosts 2019 Mental Health Summit

A large room with people awaiting the first speaker to begin his presentation.

The 2019 Mental Health Summit was once again held on the St. Phillips campus. Over 150 people from all over the South Texas area listened to speakers and Veteran presentations like wounded combat Veteran, Shilo Harris.

By Steve Goetsch
Monday, August 19, 2019

The South Texas Veterans Health Care System (STVHCS) hosted its seventh mental health summit August 8 at the Sutton Learning Center on the St. Phillip’s College campus in San Antonio. The theme for this year’s summit is “Connecting Communities, Strengthening Families, Serving Veterans.” Dr. Betsy Davis, South Texas VA Local Recovery and summit coordinator, reiterated why the theme was chosen. “Stronger families mean better quality of life for our Veterans,” Davis said.

The summit brings together specialists from STVHCS and community partners in several different fields like mental health, substance abuse, chaplaincy, whole health and others. The summit serves as a collaboration and network event designed to strengthen overall mental health services for local Veterans.

Opening remarks were given by the Director and CEO of the South Texas VA, Mr. Christopher Sandles, who said the mental health providers continue to impress him. “VA has these mental health summits because it gives us an opportunity to engage with our community partners,” Sandles said. “As the largest integrated healthcare system in the country, we know, we can’t do it all.”

Sandles went on to personally thank them for what they do and that they are an integral part in assisting the VA in completing its charge of “Taking care of those who have borne the battle.”

After opening remarks, the 150-plus attendees of the summit had the opportunity to participate in interactive breakout sessions that covered four topics supporting the theme of family; overcoming Veteran care barriers, family transitions to civilian lives, supporting mental health for family members and managing family crises.

A man is standing giving a presentation on mental health challenges

Combat Wounded Army Veteran, Shilo Harris talked about the long journey to recovery he has been on since being wounded in 2007. He said many newly discharged Veterans come to him asking for advice and mentorship. He shared his story with the room of providers

Before the groups formed and dispersed, retired soldier and wounded combat Veteran, Shilo Harris, shared his story of mental health recovery.

He frequently mentors other Veterans on recovery and navigating through the VA system. A system he said has worked well for him. That wasn’t the case for a younger wounded Vet who seemed to be having a hard time dealing with his mental health.

The younger vet was adamant that the VA was not willing to help him. Not surprisingly, Harris wanted to get to the bottom of it and help after hearing he was isolating himself.

“If you’re not getting help, let me know, because I know people,” Harris said. His next question was simple, asking if he goes to his counseling sessions. The Vet affirmed it, and Harris wanted to know what the result was.

Harris explained the younger vet’s predicament. I didn’t tell him anything because I didn’t want him to think I was crazy, Harris explained.

That led to Harris asking him “If you don’t tell your counselor, how is he supposed to help you.”

With assistance from Harris, the Veteran eventually did open up to his counselor and get help. Those types of stigmas became a topic of discussion across the different breakout sessions.

Harris told the audience of providers that the stigma and fear is real, and it holds Veterans hostage at times. “There are so many people struggling, and they don’t know how to talk about it. They don’t know if they can, they don’t know if they should,” Harris said.

He implored the practitioners to go that extra step and make counseling personal and get the Veterans to talk about their experiences, because he said it helps.

Harris has overcome those stigmas and is comfortable in his skin. A skin that was devastated by an IED and subjected to multiple surgeries. To close his presentation, he told the story of losing both of his prosthetic ears while trying on a cowboy hat. He provided a visual by popping an ear off and throwing it into the audience.

A group of Veterans stands and poses for a picture outside of St. Phillips College

The group of Veterans from Villa Serena, a special program offered by the South Texas VA, poses outside of St. Phillips College during the 2019 Community Mental Health Summit.

One of the breakout sessions, family military transitions, started with a family’s personal struggle after their son was severely wounded. They shared with the providers the hurdles they experienced like complicated healthcare systems, lack of patient education and language barriers.

Each breakout group was asked to discuss the barriers, challenges and what possible solutions would look like.

Prior to wrapping up the 2019 summit, the collection of mental health professionals and community partners was also treated to poetry written by Marine Veteran, Dr. Joe Michael Gonzales.

Gonzales, who was inspired by his South Texas VA counselor, Elizabeth Still, began writing poetry to deal with his mental health issues. At one point he told the crowd, he didn’t want to live anymore.

He said he is excited and is continuously authoring new poetry. He shared copies of new stuff with Still. he also asked his fellow veterans in the audience to advocate for their VA. “The VA needs our help,” Gonzales said. “They need our voices.”

The next step for the mental health community is taking the collected data from the summit and developing new partnerships and strategies and improving existing ones.



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