Mental health summit reaches out to African-American veterans

The sixth annual VA Mental Health Summit, set for Saturday, June 23, at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, will focus on African-American veterans.

“Part of our mandate is to make sure that all of the veterans in our community know all of the services that are available and what the VA has to offer,” said William Johnson, minority veterans program coordinator at Milwaukee’s Clement J. Zablocki Veterans Affairs Medical Center.  “Any veteran is welcome,” he added, “but we are trying to reach out particularly to historically underrepresented groups.”

The center is partnering with the Military and Veterans Resource Center at UWM to present the summit, which will run from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the UWM Student Union, 2200 E. Kenwood Blvd.

MAVRC has been partnering with the VA on a number of projects over the past few years, said Jayne Holland, interim director. The VA’s mobile vet center visits the campus regularly, and many UWM graduates have gone on to jobs at the VA. “They’re just an outstanding community partner,” said Holland.

Guest speakers at the mental health summit include: Delphine Metcalf Foster, first woman and first African-American to serve as national commander for the Disabled American Veterans, and Reggie Jackson, head griot (docent) for America’s Black Holocaust Museum.

Breakout sessions will focus on eligibility for VA healthcare and benefits; racial trauma and inequality; chronic pain management; Afro-centered approaches to healing; disparities in African-American health care and gun violence as a public health issue.

The summit is part of efforts to reach out to specific groups of veterans to let them know what services are available to them, Johnson said. Previous summits have focused on Afghan-Iraqi war veterans, as well as veterans who are female, disabled and LGBT. Plans are to focus on Latino veterans next year, Johnson said.

This year’s program was developed with input from questionnaires sent to community and mental health organizations and focus groups, Johnson said. He estimates that there are approximately 11,500 African-American veterans in the five-county Milwaukee metropolitan area. However, because the VA does not track patients by race, it’s difficult to know whether all those who are eligible know what services are available to them.

Particularly in minority communities, there may be misinformation about available services or a mistrust of government medical facilities based on historical injustices, said Michelle Watts, veterans justice outreach coordinator at the VA. In addition, many African-American veterans have traditionally relied on family and church for mental health support, feeling there was a stigma attached to seeking counseling through organizations such as the VA.

The purpose of the summit is to let veterans know the VA can offer help not just with medical issues, but also with substance abuse, housing, post-traumatic stress syndrome, depression and other issues, she added.

“We are hoping with the summit that we can improve or increase their knowledge. We want to make sure they are aware of the benefits they’ve earned and the care they deserve,” said Watts.

For more information, contact the VA Minority Veterans Program Office at 414-384-2000, Ext. 47129, or email or