Make mental healthcare effortless for veterans, VA leader says

Behavioral health providers can better support veterans by eliminating as many barriers to access as possible, one Veterans Affairs behavioral health leader says. 

"Speaking from a mix of experiences, my own and professional, the biggest thing I think that's a hurdle that providers can do better is to make things more effortless for someone to access the care," Michael Potoczniak, PhD, told Becker's. 

Dr. Potoczniak was recently named chief mental health officer for the VA's Rocky Mountain region. A psychologist by training, he also is a combat veteran, having served in the Army. 

Providers can better support veterans seeking care by staying in touch with people seeking care, even if there is a long wait for an appointment, Dr. Potoczniak said, and provide clear instructions on how to obtain crisis care. 

"If a veteran comes in and they hear there's a waitlist and the waitlist is going to be long, and they hear about the negatives, the obstacles and that's all the provider's communicating — sometimes a provider might not know that this is the last time that somebody's going to reach out for help, even though it's their first time," he said. 

Dr. Potoczniak sat down with Becker's to discuss his top priorities for leading behavioral health efforts in the Rocky Mountain region. 

Suicide prevention 

The VA's Rocky Mountain region serves more than 750,000 veterans at eight hospitals. The region is the VA's largest geographically, spanning 540,000 square miles. 

In 2021, suicide rates among veterans were twice as high as those among the non-veteran adult population, according to the VA's 2023 annual report. The Mountain states also have some of the highest suicide rates in the nation, per the CDC. 

One of the top initiatives to prevent suicide Dr. Potoczniak is spearheading involves integrating screenings for mental health risks into primary and specialty care. 

"[We need to make sure] the screenings are happening in primary care and specialty care, where veterans are most likely going to be, because not everybody comes into mental health. Making sure that all levels of screening and safety planning are there," he said. 

Identifying veterans who could be a higher risk of suicide and reaching out to them is another top priority, he said. 

"Community partnerships, working with tribal nations, service organizations and peer support specialists to reach out to veterans who are going to be at risk and trying to engage them in care — that is a big priority," Dr. Potoczniak said. 

Improving access 

Making mental healthcare accessible to veterans no matter where they live is another important effort, Dr. Potoczniak said. 

"I can't tell you how many of my veteran friends live in the middle of nowhere," he said. "Being able to still make mental healthcare an effortless thing — reaching out and developing our telehealth so veterans can sit in the comfort of their own home and get the care they need — it's a big thing I'm excited about." 

Integrating behavioral health into women's health — the VA's fastest growing service area  — is another priority. 

"I served with a lot of women who have felt neglected in their service, and in the VA," Dr. Potoczniak said. "For me, it is very personal to make sure I support the women's programs and make sure mental health is integrated into all of that."

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