Combat veteran John Carter had returned home from serving in Iraq in 2009 when he started having thoughts of harming himself.

Carter had just moved back to Houston and was having trouble adjusting to civilian life. After telling a veteran friend about the thoughts he had of harming himself, Carter’s friend took him to the vet center.

“Until I was physically taken to the vet center in Houston, I had never even heard about it,” Carter said.

Once Carter realized the services offered, he started attending counseling.

“I was encouraged — by what I saw my counselor had done for me — to go to college,” Carter said.

After being inspired to pursue higher education, Carter completed his master’s degree in social work in six years. He currently works as a counselor for the Tulsa Vet Center.

It’s important to get the word out to veterans, said Carter, so they understand the resources available to them.

“It’s a service that is available, but if you don’t know about it, it might as well not exist,” he said.

Oklahoma has one the highest rates of veteran suicide in the nation, according to a report released by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in 2016.

The rate of veteran suicide in Oklahoma is 53.8 per 100,000 veterans, according to the report. Nationwide, the rate for veteran suicide is 38.4 per 100,000 veterans. Additionally, the state’s suicide rate for veterans ages 18-34 is the highest in nation.

In its June Vital Signs report, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said suicide was the leading cause of death in the United States. Suicide rates rose across the U.S. from 1999 to 2016. In Oklahoma, the suicide rate increased 37.6 percent in that time frame.

A new statewide initiative to help people connect with resources available to veterans is in its finalizing stages, said John Wilson, the Veterans Mental Health Programs administrator who works in collaboration with the Oklahoma Department of Veterans Affairs and the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services.

“We’re in the final stages of producing an initiative we call ‘Ask the Question – ‘Did you serve?’ — Oklahoma’s Plan for Veteran Behavioral Health,” he said.

A work group of 40 people, including the executive directors for the Muskogee and Oklahoma City VA medical centers, state regents, state representatives and representatives from some Native American tribes, finalized the 34 action steps of the initiative. The plan needs approval from the top officials in both state departments before it is put into action.

The work group also is planning to create and “Ask the Question ‘Did you serve?’” website, with drop down menus containing information on veterans education, behavioral health, medical health and more.

“We are hopeful that the steps we are attempting to take with the collaborative initiative of these two agencies will help,” said Wilson.

Tele-mental health services help to spread resources in rural areas, Wilson said.

“A good thing that is going on is the federal VA, veterans VA medical centers particularly, are really working on the idea of tele-mental health,” Wilson said. “So that providers in more rural areas and providers in cities as well, without a behavioral health background, can talk to someone with a clinical psychology or psychiatric background to help people who deal with depression, anxiety, or suicidal ideation and make proper assessments and referrals.”

Mental health care for veterans in the Bartlesville area

Grand Lakes Mental Health Center uses technology to make it easier for veterans in northeast Oklahoma to get in touch with resources.

“A lot of times veterans won’t want to come into the office or be in public,” said Amy Hogan, Clinical Director of Adult Services for Grand Lakes Mental Health Center.

“So we issue them an iPad and we can provide services and they are considered face-to-face by the state.”

Grand Lakes Mental Health Center serves 13 counties in northeast Oklahoma.

“All the police in our areas have iPads and they can hand them (veterans) an iPad if they go out on a crisis call,” said Hogan. “They can talk directly to a live mental health professional.”

“Washington County is one of the first areas that we really targeted and we saw there was a need a couple of years ago,” Hogan said. “Veterans were not getting served and its because they were more than 40 miles away from any type of VA service.”

Now the health care center is able to serve veterans remotely.

“We’re able to provide those services to them in their home or wherever they need them,” Hogan said.

The closest VA outpatient clinics to Bartlesville are in Vinita and Tulsa, but the Eastern Oklahoma VA Health Care System has been approved to open an outpatient clinic in Bartlesville during fiscal year 2020.

“We also have Veterans Choice programs, which is for veterans that reside at least 40 miles from the VA or any VA services,” Hogan said. “Or if they are on the waiting list at the VA for services. We can get them in faster for mental health issues they may have.”

The Tulsa Vet Center offers free and confidential counseling services and sends counselors to cities so veterans will not have to drive as far. Counselors come out to multiple places in the northeast and southeast portions of Oklahoma, including Bartlesville, Claremore and Vinita.

“While people who live in the Dewey/Bartlesville area are certainly welcome to drive to Tulsa, I would imagine that most won’t,” said Carter, the Tulsa Vet Center counselor. “Especially if you are in crisis or having a hard time, to be motivated to drive in is a challenge.”

Carter comes to Bartlesville every Wednesday and encourages people to reach out to the vet center for services.

“Even those who think ‘Well, I might not be 100 percent sure that I need help,’ coming in and seeing us is not going to hurt,” said Carter.

Support from friends and family

On top of support from programs, counselors and clinics, veterans benefit from support from friends and family, said Charles Yundt, veteran services representative for Bartlesville. Yundt served in the army from 2006 to 2012 and spent 15 months in Iraq.

“Just being there for them is the biggest thing,” said Yundt.

When the people around him are attentive to his needs, it helps with his anxiety, Yundt said.

“Personally, I don’t like doing Walmart because there’s just way too many people there,” he said. “So typically if I go in and my wife is with me, she kinda keeps a hand on me to make sure that I’m staying calm and that anxiety kinda rolls off a little more.”

Some veterans have difficulty about what happened, said Joe Todd, a veteran from Bartlesville. Todd served in the Gulf War, the Vietnam War, and in Haiti and has interviewed over 1,000 veterans across the U.S. about their experiences.

“A lot of people (veterans) don’t reach out,” said Todd. “They just want to be left alone.”

“Sometimes it’s a sad situation that these veterans are coping with. And other people don’t know how to deal with it,” said Todd.

Todd suggests people just need to be there for the veterans in their life.

“Sometimes with PTSD you have nightmares and they’ll never go away. They’ll be there for the rest of your life,” he said. “You just have to be there for them and support them in any way you can.”