Welcome to the UCHealth Next Chapter program blog. This platform is dedicated to discussing, raising awareness, and battling the heartbreaking issue of veteran suicides in Colorado.

In our recent podcast, Jeremy Graham shared an enlightening and somewhat relatable anecdote about how even a minor life change — like Colorado’s new law charging 10 cents for plastic grocery bags — can trigger stress. Seeing people get frustrated over this relatively small shift made him ponder about more significant life changes and their impact on mental health. Specifically, he was concerned about the changes veterans must handle when transitioning from military service. His story beautifully encapsulates our mission here at Next Chapter, as we aim to understand the depths of veterans’ emotional struggles and find ways to support them and their families.

Next Chapter is about Change

Next Chapter is a community collaborative wellness serving Veterans and their families, backed by renowned partners like the Colorado Behavioral Health Administration, UCHealth, and Mt. Carmel Veterans Service Center. While the program is currently focused in Southern Colorado, our goal is to widen our reach and provide wellness services at no out-of-pocket to as many military families as possible.

Spearheaded by two Veterans, now clinicians in the UCHealth system, Next Chapter builds on personal experiences and professional expertise to understand the struggles of transitioning veterans and provide them with much-needed support. Like our podcast, this blog serves as a platform for discussion, sharing resources, and collectively working toward preventing veteran suicides in Colorado.

Stay tuned for more updates and information as we strive to make a difference in the lives of our heroes and their families. Every veteran deserves to be understood, heard, and helped.

The Challenge of Change

Change, in any form, can be challenging. The transition from military life to civilian life is no exception. We often take things for granted, such as assuming we’ll be given a grocery bag at the store. But when this changes, we feel the jolt of having to adapt. Military transitions can cause that same jolt of stress. Most service members anticipate their departure from the military due to the end of service time or medical conditions. However, when the day arrives, the reality often catches them off guard.

Just like forgetting to bring a bag to the grocery store, service members may overlook how much their world will change when they leave the military. They leave behind a job, a culture, a group of comrades, and a familiar identity. Even if the transition goes smoothly, the changes can be overwhelming, affecting family life, personal identity, and a sense of purpose.

Significant changes like losing a job or a loved one, or insignificant changes as minor as forgetting a bag, can catalyze behavioral health changes. The sudden shift in a veteran’s world can lead to decreased mental stability. Many little changes and stressors can pile up, pushing individuals to their limits. In the face of such changes, veterans need access to support systems and resources like UCHealth’s Next Chapter program to help them navigate the transition and maintain their well-being.

The Power in Asking for Help

Meet Sean Sindler, a 14-year Air Force Veteran and an early advocate for UCHealth’s Next Chapter program. A personable and driven individual, Sean may not fit the stereotypical image of someone struggling with mental health. However, his story underscores the universality and indiscriminate nature of mental health struggles, particularly those induced by dramatic changes.

Sean’s life took a tumultuous turn in 2016 when he received a Red Cross call about his mother’s failing health while stationed in Korea. Amid constant traveling back and forth from Korea to his hometown in Florida, combined with an ensuing transfer to a base in Germany, he was forced to suppress his grief. The delayed response to his mother’s death triggered a significant change in Sean’s mental health, which resulted in instability at work and home and affected his relationships with his wife and children.

The subsequent emotional turmoil propelled Sean into Bipolar Disorder, characterized by high highs and low lows, ultimately leading to suicidal thoughts. An incident at a nearby pond, where he contemplated suicide, marked a turning point. Thanks to his coworkers, he was found and given much-needed help. Following this incident, Sean spent a week in an inpatient mental health ward, an experience he now shares openly to help others at a similar crossroads.

Sean’s story demonstrates the necessity of seeking help when needed. He says, “It’s strength to ask for help.” His journey took him to Next Chapter, and he now advocates for mental health assistance and employment assistance programs for fellow military veterans. He’s living in Colorado, armed with a new job, a new outlook on life, and the commitment to help others navigate life changes. His story is proof that even in the face of extreme adversity, there’s always hope for a new chapter.

Change Through Education

Meet Jim and Jane Boyce, a formidable duo with two decades of Army service and a wealth of experience in mental health. The Boyces are part of a formidable army of advocates working to shatter the stigma surrounding mental health issues within the veteran community. Their weapon of choice? Education.

Jim and Jane are dedicated volunteers at the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), a grassroots mental health organization focusing on education, advocacy, and community outreach. They teach Home Front, a class specially designed for military service members and their families, focusing on health, wellness, and recovery.

Their passion for this work stems from a deeply personal experience. Their son, Luke, who has a severe mental illness and is on the autism spectrum, struggled throughout his childhood. Navigating the health care system while dealing with constant relocations due to Jim’s military service was daunting, especially given the lack of understanding and treatment for autism spectrum disorders at the time.

Jane, a retired marriage and family therapist, understood the mechanics of mental health, but applying that knowledge to a family member presented a unique challenge. They grappled with accepting the extent of Luke’s disabilities, and they dealt with regret because they initially failed to recognize the severity of his struggles and wrongly attributed it to a lack of effort.

Their poignant realization and personal experience equipped them with a unique understanding of what people need when confronted with catastrophic events within their families: empathy, support, resources, and early intervention. Now they bring this understanding to their work at NAMI and UCHealth’s Next Chapter program, embodying the principle that sometimes, you can’t do it alone. Their mission, through teaching and advocacy, is to ensure that no one has to struggle by themselves.

Their journey has inspired them to teach the Home Front NAMI course and to support military service members and their families through mental health crises. Their core message: It’s okay to ask for help; mental health challenges are biologically based and not a sign of weakness; and lastly, navigating mental health issues and the medical system can be challenging, but with empathy, understanding, and the right resources, it will be okay.

A Hopeful Next Chapter

As we conclude this blog post, we’d like to share some simultaneously encouraging and sobering numbers. Since the inception of the Next Chapter program, there’s been a noticeable decrease in veteran suicides, which is a promising indicator of our impact. These statistics from the El Paso County Coroner’s Office reveal a reduction from 33% to 21% in veteran suicides, a significant drop. This indicates that our efforts are directionally correct, even if the suicide rate continues to climb.

However, as much as we’re encouraged by this decline, we are painfully aware that behind each percentage point is a life, a veteran brother or sister, and a family left in unspeakable grief. While our efforts seem to make a difference, the ultimate goal is to reduce these tragic losses to zero. Every life saved is a victory. Every veteran and every family member who finds themselves in crisis should have an alternative to the catastrophic choice of suicide.

Next Chapter is committed to continuing its work in the year ahead, contributing to creating a positive change for veterans in our community. We realize that there’s more work to be done and we are honored to serve as a lifeline for those in need.

As we reflect on the progress made, we find humor in the little things — like the possibility of Next Chapter tote bags to ease the burden of the new bag law at the grocery store. Small or large, every change we can make to alleviate stress and improve lives matters to us.

Lastly, we remind everyone that help is available. If you or someone you know is considering suicide, please dial 988 and press 1.

Thank you for joining us on this journey toward creating a safe and supportive community for our veterans. We look forward to continued progress in the fight against veteran suicide and are glad to have you as part of our mission. Until next time, remember every veteran’s story matters, and every next chapter promises hope.