As government tackles veteran suicide, former soldier shares her story
By JERREL FLOYD | The Post and Courier | Published: July 20, 2019
CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP) — U.S. Army veteran Joyce Letellier stopped herself from saying her future is bright.
"I don't want to sound corny," the 61-year-old Hanahan, S.C., resident said.
Instead, she stresses she cares about her life now and doesn't want to die anymore.
"If that makes sense," Letellier said.
It's quite a turnaround. In the past 31 years, Letellier has attempted suicide four times. Throughout her entire life she has battled anxiety, depression, substance abuse and post-traumatic stress disorder.
After years of treatment, she is now in a well enough mental health space to joyfully reflect on her future and her bird-watching. But she is not the first veteran to have fought this battle.
According to the Department of Veteran Affairs, national suicide rates among the veteran population are much higher compared to the civilian population — more than 10 points higher, the VA's most recent data shows.
In South Carolina, the picture looks much the same. Among the entire state population, there are an average 20.7 suicide deaths per 100,000. Among veterans in South Carolina, the rate is nearly 30 per 100,000. In response to these numbers, some VA hospitals have sought to invest more resources into mental health programs.
In June, the VA and the Trump administration launched a veteran suicide prevention task force. VA Secretary Robert Wilkie said in a press release that one of the the task force's initial goals is to network with local and community VA partners to decrease suicide rates.
"This is a call to action," he said.
Letellier agrees on the importance of the group's mission. That's why she is hoping that if other veterans learn she has been able to make it, then maybe they will reach out for help, as well.
"They're struggling, we're struggling," she said. "They need it."
The Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center in Charleston is one VA hospital that has sought to prioritize mental health services. That's where Letellier was connected with Denise O'Neill, a clinical social worker, who she said has been impactful in her mental health journey.
"I've always appreciated Joyce because she persisted," O'Neill said. "She took advantage of everything we could offer."
In the past, VA hospitals have been highlighted nationally as having issues with patient wait times due in part to staffing issues. There was a time when the Ralph H. Johnson VAMC had around 62 mental health staff members. Today, they have around 360.
"That tells you that mental health is a priority," said Dr. Hugh Myrick, associate chief of staff for mental health at the Charleston VA.
Myrick notes that 80 percent of the veterans they reach out to engage with staff at the Charleston VA. One of the things Myrick believes has been helpful to them is the unique, collaborative care they are able to provide.
This means they can fulfill multiple care needs. Now, with increased staff, they believe they can be more of a one-stop shop for veterans.
If they can't, O'Neill highlights there is always the option to send a patient to more specialized care. But patients have to want it.
"We're not there to tell the person what to do," she said. "This is really a collaboration ... We align with their power."
For all of her life, Letellier said she has suffered from depression. She remembers often not wanting to get out of bed. There was a time when it was difficult for her family to understand what she was going through.
She joined the Army straight out of high school but left after two years for mental health reasons. At the time, she didn't know she qualified for VA benefits and couldn't afford care on her own.
She later attempted suicide. Only after coming to the VA for a breast cancer screening in 2006 did she connect with their mental health team.
Around the same time, Letellier went into a severe depression. In 2008, she was admitted as a psychiatric inpatient at the VA hospital for 10 days.
"They worked with me every day," she said.
Her battle didn't stop there. Letellier came back to the VA in 2015 with a severe drug abuse problem.
"I was also severely depressed," she said. "Just a mess."
VA hospital staff sent her to a treatment center in Asheville, N.C., for drug and alcohol abuse. The second day there, she said, she tried to commit suicide again.
"I couldn't live with the shame," Letellier said. "And they took care of me, they got me to the emergency room ... They didn't just shoo me away."
She eventually came home to South Carolina and started participating in a drug and alcohol abuse program. The VA sent her to other treatment methods, too, including a 12-week program in Minneapolis.
"It didn't cost me anything," she said, "and it was very rewarding. That treatment helped me so much and it continues to help me."
Whenever her depression or suicidal thoughts started again, Letellier said she could always call someone at the VA, including O'Neill, for help.
"The minute I say 'I'm depressed,' my mental health team immediately gets help for me," she said.
That consistency and access to care is what saved her life, Letellier said.
Now she believes she has more skills to be self-sufficient when it comes to her mental health. She even acts as a sponsor for two women in a 12-step program. One of them is a veteran, too.
Robin Kelleher, the co-founder of a nonprofit for veterans and their families called Hope for the Warriors, said it is vital the public consistently focuses on veterans' needs. They're a small population that has made sacrifices for a lot of people, she said.
"Resiliency is built over the years," she said. "We can help build that resiliency."
This is becoming increasingly important for women veterans like Letellier — the fastest growing veteran group, according to the VA.
Lory Manning, a Navy veteran and director of the Service Women's Action Network, said the number of veteran women who have attempted suicide is low but they are often more likely to complete a suicide than civilian women.
Letellier hopes veterans who are going through what she has been through don't feel shamed or stigmatized about getting help.
"You don't have to die," she said.