HEALTHY MIND MATTERS

Utah Veteran Fights Her Way Back From The Brink

Nov 11, 2020, 10:09 PM | Updated: 10:16 pm

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah – The COVID-19 pandemic has hit our military hard. Military deaths by suicide have increased by as much as 20% this year, and the VA Salt Lake City Healthcare System is changing the way it treats mental health.

A former soldier knows what it’s like to find her way back from the brink.

Delivering babies isn’t for the faint of heart. But Kimberly Andelin of South Jordan has one of the biggest hearts around.

“It’s been so healing for me,” Andelin said.

For over a decade, that heart was heavy.

“A hole, just completely in my chest area, that my heart had completely been blown out and that nobody could see it,” Andelin said.

She enlisted in the army in 2001. “And then five days later, the twin towers got hit,” Andelin said.

Kimberly Andelin of South Jordan served as a combat medic in Iraq. She came home feeling completely broken. (KSL-TV)

She went to Iraq as a combat medic.

“Nothing in my life had prepared me for war,” she said.

Though Andelin excelled and was promoted to sergeant, she faced a different battle when she returned.

“There’s a lot of people who are struggling under silent battles that nobody can see.”

She had PTSD, hallucinations and suicidal thoughts.

“I don’t want to get out of bed or do anything because my heart was so broken.”

Veterans are 1.5 times more likely to die from suicide than civilians, according to the VA Office of Mental Health and Suicide Prevention’s 2019 National Suicide Prevention Report.

For women veterans, the suicide risk is twice as high — 2.2 times greater — and 69% of all veteran suicide deaths are from a firearm — much higher than the general population.

The VA Salt Lake City Healthcare System is finding new ways to help by expanding its locations.

Dr. Al Hernandez with the VA Salt Lake City Health Care System said, “We’re not just looking at a veteran medically and physically, we’re looking at the whole person.”

A new clinic in South Jordan is part of that shift. By integrating mental health into primary care, through community-based clinics and routine mental health screenings, they hope fewer veterans slip through the cracks.

Kristey McHenry, assistant clinic manager at the South Jordan clinic, said, “You’re being treated just like a diabetic would or someone with hypertension. It’s not a separate thing, it’s all-inclusive.”

In every primary care visit, they screen for suicide, McHenry said.

With providers on-site and on-call, veterans can get therapy that same day — which is especially important during COVID-19.

“Veterans have been unemployed, laid off, the stress of being quarantined,” Hernandez said. “All the sudden …those nightmares start coming back.”

Through the VA, Andelin learned coping skills. Now, she packs for births, not war.

“And while the journey may have felt like it was never gonna end, I know that there is hope and happiness ahead,” she said.

Hoping to find veterans before it’s too late.

The Salt Lake City VA Health Care System is also building community clinics in Tooele and Logan.

The South Jordan clinic also has a mobile crisis team that dispatches in emergencies. If you or someone you know needs help, call the Veterans Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255.

If you’d like a free gun lock, contact Michael Tragakis with the VA Salt Lake City Health Care System at michael.tragakis@va.gov.

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Utah Veteran Fights Her Way Back From The Brink