A fourth annual symposium was held in Cheektowaga Wednesday, bringing veterans and community caregivers together as a means to improve awareness of and access to critical needs.
The Veterans Symposium welcomed speakers from several agencies and initiatives who work in the arena of mental health, one of the highest priorities of concern for the veteran community.
Among the speakers inside the Private Leonard Post, Jr. VFW hall on Walden Avenue was Sergeant Max Donatelli, a Vietnam Veteran, who works with the Erie County Anti-Stigma Coalition on Mental Illness.
"When people come back here, we want them to know that there are benefits that they can get through the VA," he said. "There's the Veterans One-Stop (of Western New York) that's here. There's a variety of different kinds of supports that are here."
The goals of the symposium, as listed in literature distributed to guests, are to help participants gain a better understanding of obtaining community services for veterans and their families, identifying resources to better link veterans and families with appropriate community services, and recognizing ways to improve access to those services.
One of the greatest challenges, Donatelli says, is helping veterans overcome the belief that reaching out for help is a sign of weakness. Many, he told WBFO, feel they can work through their problems unassisted. But that sometimes leads them to alternatives such as substance abuse and, in some cases, a darker path toward possible suicidal thoughts or actions.
Getting past that notion that seeking help equates to weakness was especially problematic among Vietnam-era veterans, who were already feeling alienated after coming home from a socially unpopular war to what sometimes was a hostile reception.
"When I came back and worked at the veterans' office, veterans didn't want to even be identified as being veterans," Donatelli said. "They kept trying to stay under the radar and di dnot get the kind of help that they needed. They had benefits they could have gotten but they didn't even take those benefits, because they didn't want to be identified as veterans."
Donatelli also encouraged guests to take an oath to be more careful with their words when discussing mental health in the open. Even those who work closely with clients and genuinely care for them, he explained, sometimes in casual conversations with other dedicated peers may use a word - he used "crazy" as an example - which may inadvertently trigger an adverse action.
Other initiatives, agencies or sponsors represented at Wednesday's symposium were the PFC Joseph P. Dwyer Veteran Peer Support Program, Headway of Western New York, Buffalo Vet Center, Horizon Village,People Inc., Catholic Charities and University at Buffalo Primary Care Research Institute's Department of Family Medicine.