State hospital and mental health organizations have banned together to address mental health care issues in military veterans as well as their families.

The Health Research and Educational Trust of New Jersey, an arm of the New Jersey Hospital Association, will create education and training programs with a new $375,000 federal grant on mental health first aid to specifically help New Jersey veterans.

For veterans, mental health issues and substance use disorders are more prevalent and more likely to go untreated, experts say. Between about 37 and 50 percent of war veterans in the U.S. Veterans Administration health care system receive a mental disorder diagnosis, such as post-traumatic stress disorder or depression.

Roughly 11 percent of veterans are diagnosed with a substance use disorder, health officials said, and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs reports that about 22 veterans die by suicide every day.

The grant-funded initiatives will involve increasing an understanding of mental illness among the military community, improve the ability to de-escalate crisis situations and expand access to mental health services by training veterans and health providers alongside each other on the needs of veterans.

“I think any time you can have the actual veteran present to provide their experience and perspective, it benefits both the professional and the veterans,” said Kristin Brown, director of the VA Ventnor Vet Center.

There are more than 355,000 veterans in New Jersey as of September 2017, according to Veterans Affairs. Counties where veterans make up more than 5.6 percent of the population include Cape May, Salem, Ocean and Burlington.

The goal of the program is to train seven teams, each containing one veteran and one mental health professional, to provide the national Mental Health First Aid course to veterans, their family members, caregivers and health care providers.

Mental Health First Aid has nationally recognized courses used to teach first responders, educators, social services professionals, law enforcement, family members and any other community members how to recognize and respond to mental health issues and crises.

The seven teams will complete a five-day instructor training with a master trainer from the National Council for Behavioral Health. The Health Research and Educational Trust of New Jersey will work with the Mental Health Association in New Jersey to oversee the program, officials said.

“This grant affords us the ability to do the right thing, which is to use proven tools to address the ongoing mental health and substance use disorder crisis among the military community,” Cathy Bennett, president and CEO of the hospital association, said in a statement.

Melinda Caliendo, hospital association spokeswoman, said the teams have not yet been chosen, and the Mental Health Association will screen and identify participants. Once they are trained, they will hold first aid courses throughout the state, including South Jersey, she said.

Brown said partnering with community providers is a great idea for educational purposes. At the Ventnor Vet Center, experts worked to train licensed practical nurses and nursing staff at nursing homes on care for their veteran patients.

Brown said she has done the same for staff and resident assistants at Stockton University to help educate them on student veterans on campus.

The federal grant is from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and will be distributed in $125,000 every year for three years.

The grant will also fund the development of a referral system to connect social service networks, mental health providers and people in need of care, as well as the continuing education to the trainees and other health care providers on the unique needs of the military population.

Contact: 609-272-7022

Twitter @ACPressNLeonard

Staff Writer

Previously interned and reported for, The Asbury Park Press, The Boston Globe

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