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COVID-19 threatens veterans’ mental health

Science | Isolation puts a vulnerable population at greater risk
by Julia A. Seymour
Posted 5/20/20, 06:41 pm

Rob Bailey sits alone each day in the Veterans of Foreign Wars hall he commands in Montgomery, Ill. Retired veterans no longer sit in the banquet hall and lounge, chatting with each other. Bailey, a U.S. Navy veteran, may send out emails or tidy up, but he’s always close to the phone, ready for anyone who needs someone to talk to. Some days, 10 to 12 people call him. On days the phone doesn’t ring, Bailey calls at-risk members of his VFW “family.”

The isolation, job loss, and fear from the coronavirus pandemic put military veterans’ mental health at great risk. Before the crisis, veterans were already 1.5 times more likely to commit suicide than the general population in the United States. Groups that serve veterans are combating the negative effects of isolation by trying to get ahead of the problem by adopting telemedicine, adding hotlines, and making themselves available for counseling.

“Isolation is a killer in the veteran community,” Veteran’s Club Founder and CEO Jeremy Harrell told WKYT-TV in Lexington, Ky. “It’s something we fight every single day.” To alleviate the threat, the Kentucky-based group formed a new mental health team whose members can answer texts, phone calls, and video chats 24/7.

Boredom is dangerous, too.

“An idle mind is the worst thing for veterans,” Bailey said. “Right now, it’s a lot worse, especially for veterans with PTSD,” Bailey said, adding that being quarantined can feel similar to military service and trigger difficult memories brought on by post-traumatic stress disorder.

Retired veterans seem to struggle the most because of the lack of routine. Bailey said before the VFW hall closed, some veterans came by multiple times a day: “They rely on the VFW for friendship, companionship, and now they don’t have that.”

The Cohen Veterans Network, a nonprofit group that deals with mental health issues, has seen its web traffic increase—it spikes after midnight on Saturdays. Cohen has 15 health centers across the nation and plans to open 10 more later this year. Because of the coronavirus, it has transitioned 98 percent of its patients to telemedicine.

The Department of Veterans Affairs also uses telemedicine, especially for mental health appointments. Remote mental health check-ins almost quadrupled from February to March. Virtual therapy through the VA Online Connect app grew 70 percent during the same period. Veterans Affairs also launched a campaign for Mental Health Awareness Month in May to make sure veterans know about the available resources.

Cohen President Anthony Hassan anticipates even greater needs for mental health treatment and fears the U.S. health system is unprepared: “The one thing I don’t want to be is too late. We need to be talking now about how we can make sure we are ahead of this.”

Associated Press/Colorado Department of Corrections/The Denver Post Associated Press/Colorado Department of Corrections/The Denver Post Cornelius Haney

Back to prison

Denver police arrested Cornelius Haney, 40, on murder charges three weeks after he left prison on coronavirus-related special parole. Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, a Democrat, signed an executive order on March 25 allowing the state Department of Corrections to grant early release to prisoners at high risk for COVID-19 or near their release dates. Haney, who pleaded guilty to felony burglary in 2016, was scheduled for release in August, but the parole board let him leave prison on April 15. On May 9, police arrested him on suspicion of shooting and killing a 21-year-old woman.

Prisons across the country have worked to reduce inmate populations during the pandemic. Some prisoners granted early release must go on house arrest or supervised parole. Others eventually will have to go back behind bars and serve the rest of their time. The Christian ministry Prison Fellowship has supported such measures, saying an outbreak of COVID-19 in a prison would be a nightmare.

But the Colorado prosecutor who handled Haney’s case questioned the early releases. “I want to know how many other people out there have been paroled like this,” 18th Judicial District Attorney George Brauchler told The Colorado Sun. “Should the public be concerned? Because I am.” —Charissa Koh

Associated Press/Photo by Justin Long (file) Associated Press/Photo by Justin Long (file) A baseball autographed by Boston Red Sox Hall of Famer Carl Yastrzemski that was donated to raise money for charity

From reporter to philanthropist

Chris Cotillo, a 24-year-old Boston Red Sox beat reporter for MassLive.com, has raised $57,000 for charities by auctioning off his personal baseball memorabilia. On April 12, he tweeted instructions: He would post an item and a deadline, people could send offers, and the highest bidder would receive the item after donating the money to a charity. The idea drew attention from other sports figures. Former Boston manager Alex Cora offered a pair of cleats worn during a game, and the Red Sox sent a jersey signed by Xander Bogaerts. NFL Network reporter Mike Giardi borrowed the idea and raised more than $20,000 through similar auctions. By May 12, Cotillo had auctioned 350 items benefiting charities like the Greater Boston Food Bank. —C.K.

Julia A. Seymour

Julia has worked as a writer in the Washington, D.C., area since 2005 and was a fall 2012 participant in a World Journalism Institute mid-career class conducted by WORLD editor in chief Marvin Olasky in Asheville, N.C. Follow Julia on Twitter @SteakandaBible.

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