Over the past week, state agencies and small businesses across Maryland lit up with green lights to show their support for Maryland’s veterans as part of Operation Green Light, a national campaign to recognize veterans and provide educational opportunities highlighting the needs and well-being of those who served in the U.S. military.

Hospitals and healthcare facilities across the state are also participating in the lighting campaign to raise awareness for the medical and mental health needs of veterans, which can be different from the general population.

The Kaufman Cancer Center was lit green this week to honor veterans. Photo courtesy of the University of Maryland Medical System.

“Veterans, as a result of their serving our nation, have been exposed to different stressors than our civilian population,” according to Dr. David Marcozzi, chief clinical officer for the University of Maryland Medical Center.

Operation Green Light runs from Nov. 6 through Nov. 12, and the University of Maryland Medical System health care facilities are participating this week, as well as Maryland’s VA Maryland Health Care System.

Marcozzi is also a veteran as a retired colonel from the United States Army Reserve, and has a close perspective on the medical needs of Maryland’s veterans, some of which compound into one another.

The Maryland Department of Health reports that there are some 398,000 military veterans in Maryland, while 53,000 others are currently serving on active duty, reserve and National Guard.

Veterans returning home from military duties may experience a wide range of mental and medical conditions as a result of their services, according to Marcozzi.

“They have higher levels of mental health disorders including post traumatic stress disorder…and that translates to substance abuse disorders,” Marcozzi said. “And then, fundamentally, due to some of their deployments, they have conditions that are a result of their injuries that they’ve encountered. From amputations to head injuries and concussions to traumatic injuries.”

Maryland’s delegation in Congress has worked on legislation to help veterans receive health care for conditions related to toxic exposure while serving.

The Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson Honoring Our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics Act (PACT Act), passed last year to expand VA health care coverage for symptoms of toxic exposures, expand coverage to post-9/11 combat veterans, and strengthen federal research on toxic exposure, according to the office of U.S. Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D).

The 2022 legislation also provides $75 million to create two veterans’ outpatient clinics in Baltimore and Prince George’s County.

Veterans can also still have typical health conditions that the average American is susceptible to, on top of service-related medical needs.

“They have the conditions that we all have — asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, diabetes,” Marcozzi noted.

He said that healthcare workers need to understand where veterans are at when it comes to being open about mental health conditions.

“You are not more vulnerable as a result of talking about depression or concerns around suicidality,” he said. “You will be stronger as a result of opening up about that eventually — once we have open dialogue and we have the right therapy and potentially pharmaceuticals to support you.”

“But what we don’t want to do is allow those challenges to remain silent, and allow the veterans to think that they are alone,” Marcozzi said.

One of the challenges of trying to provide mental health services to veterans is that they may struggle to ask for help in the first place.

Dr. Marcozzi said that he can relate.

“I’m guilty of that,” Marcozzi said. He referenced a November 2020 press conference he participated in to provide updates on COVID-19 as part of Gov. Larry Hogan’s (R) COVID task force. The emotions that he felt during that press conference helped him realize that he needed to invest in his own mental health and seek help.

“All service members are trained to just power on and drive through,” Marcozzi added. “You just keep driving on with the mission. And when you’re mission-focused like that, you have the potential to lose the ability to have insights to yourself and to support yourself.”

The Maryland Department of Health recently announced a grant funding opportunity for nonprofits to help expand behavioral health programs for active service members, veterans and their families.

On Oct. 23, the department announced a $2.4 million grant through Sheila E. Hixson Behavioral Health Services Matching Grant Program.

“Many service members and veterans are trained to be resilient and may be less likely to ask for help, so it is our responsibility to offer providers the information and tools to reach and provide care to these individuals and families,” said Maryland Secretary of Health Dr. Laura Herrera Scott in a written statement.

Nonprofits who are awarded the grant funds can use them for a variety of services to improve access to behavioral health care for not only veterans but also active duty members.

That includes the use of telehealth or telemedicine services, so that veterans can receive care from their homes. Other uses for the grant funding includes mental health and substance use screenings and case management services.

The funds could also be used to improve delivery of “trauma-informed, culturally competent, client-centered and evidence-based mental health and substance use disorders treatment services” and provide alternative therapy services such as art and music therapies.

Dr. Marcozzi wants veterans who are struggling with mental health or other health concerns to reach out and find the help they need.

“As a fellow veteran, I want to encourage other vets to stay optimistic and take care of themselves. You all have served our country with honor and dedication.  Please know that you are not alone in facing any difficulty or struggle. There are many options for veterans to access support and assistance. You matter. You are valued,” Marcozzi said in a follow-up statement.

“Please prioritize your health and happiness,” he added.

The 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline, a nationwide phone number for people in crisis, has an extension line specifically for veterans. Any veteran struggling with mental health or other concerns can press “1” after dialing 988 to get connected the Veterans Crisis Lifeline. Responders can help connect veterans to additional resources or offer emotional support in difficult times, among other resources.

The Veterans Crisis Lifeline also has online chat or text communication options.

This article was originally published on MarylandMatters.org and is republished with permission.

Danielle J. Brown is a new Maryland resident covering health care and equity for Maryland Matters. Previously, she covered state education policy for three years at the Florida Phoenix, along with other...

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