ST. PETERSBURG — Veteran Ellsworth "Tony" Williams says the Bay Pines VA Healthcare System's new mental health center will help fill an immediate need.
"In the past six months, I know of six veterans in Hillsborough County who committed suicide," said Williams, 55, who served in the Army and is president of Veterans Counseling Veterans, a non-profit group helping struggling vets. "Having this kind of one-stop shopping, in a nice place, will help eliminate the stigma of seeking help."
Williams was one of more than 100 veterans attending the opening of the new 155,000-square-foot center Friday morning, along with Miguel LaPuz, the VA's acting principal deputy undersecretary for health, staff from both Bay Pines and the James A. Haley VA Hospital in Tampa, and elected leaders such as U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist, D-St. Petersburg.
Williams' sentiments go to the heart of the center's mission, said Alfonso F. Carreno, chief of mental health and behavioral science services at Bay Pines.
"We now have most of our mental health programs in one building," Carreno said.
This helps make the services more efficient and improves communications, he said. It is adjacent to the hospital, making it more convenient and less stigma-inducing. And it makes it easier for patients and potential patients.
"They don't have to go to seven different buildings," he said. "They don't have to navigate the campus, because now all these services are in one place."
Bay Pines director Suzanne Klinker said the new center answers a growing demand.
Out of the 108,000 patients the hospital system sees every year, 22,000 seek mental and behavioral health services.
Across the nation, Carreno said, 1 million people attempt suicide every year. More than 110, including 20 veterans, kill themselves every day.
Construction on the four-story building, about the size of a Walmart Super Center, began in March 2014 and cost nearly $92 million.
The new center increases the number of residential patient beds from 50 to 60 and the number of acute in-patient beds from 33 to 40, Carreno said.
Ramon McCool, 63, a retired Marine master sergeant from Seminole, said he would recommend friends struggling with mental issues to seek help at the new center.
"There are too many veterans and their families who don't know where to go," said McCool. "This center shows that the VA has a commitment to helping veterans seek mental health."
Contact Howard Altman at [email protected] or (813) 225-3112. Follow @haltman