A panel, pictured from left, Devin Daniels, Sarah Anderson, Jeff Baldwin, Jay McBride and Travis Snyder talk with fellow veterans during a GVSU Laker Veterans luncheon where a Veteran Mental Health Project was discussed.

GVSU veterans use design thinking to address suicide prevention

A group of veterans from Grand Valley is using design thinking principles to help develop a prototype for a system to reduce veteran suicide by providing immediate local veteran-to-veteran support during a mental health crisis.

The system, known as Be My Unit, was created based on interviews with veterans who provided direct feedback on their experiences dealing with mental health issues and current solutions available to the veteran community.

Early work on development of the Be My Unit prototype was previewed during a luncheon for GVSU veterans hosted by the Peter Secchia Military and Veterans Resource Center on Thursday, Aug. 11.

“These are individuals with individual struggles and for the longest time we’ve tried to come at it through a sort of institutional umbrella, Band-Aid kind of perspective,” said Jill Hinton Wolfe, military and veterans resource manager at GVSU. “The thing I love about this is it’s just sort of one person reaching out to another who has similar shared experiences.”

While still in its conceptual phase, Be My Unit is envisioned as a tool that recognizes that current efforts that are costing billions of dollars aren’t doing enough to reduce veteran suicide. Over the past 20 years military veterans have been four times more likely to die by suicide than in combat. In 2019 more than 6,200 veterans took their own lives.

It’s that on-going battle that brought GVSU veterans like Sarah Anderson, ’21, to the table to participate in the design thinking process. She sees the work as part of President Philomena V. Mantella’s commitment to supporting veterans and their families as part of the campus community.

“There is a lack of support when you get out,” Anderson said. “It’s like going from a community in a unit in a warrior culture to an individual culture; and you have no one. So people go through mental health crises. So it’s how do we continue being that unit, being that support system when you’re going through that? That’s what this is attempting to do.”


Jill Hinton Wolfe, GVSU's military and veterans resource manager, listens to student veterans that worked with the ATOMA Veteran Mental Health Project that was discussed during a GVSU Laker Veterans luncheon
Jill Hinton Wolfe, GVSU's military and veterans resource manager, listens to student veterans that worked on a prototype for veteran suicide prevention.
Kendra Stanley-Mills
Veteran Hannah Kreun laughs with fellow veterans during a GVSU Laker Veterans luncheon where the a Veteran Mental Health Project that was discussed.
Veteran Hannah Kreun laughs with fellow veterans during a GVSU Laker Veterans luncheon where a veteran suicide prevention project was discussed.
Kendra Stanley-Mills
Heather Tsavaris, left, and Student Veterans of America President Jared Lyon, center, listen to a panel during a GVSU Laker Veterans luncheon where a veteran suicide prevention project was discussed.
Heather Tsavaris, left, and Student Veterans of America President Jared Lyon, center, listen to a panel during a GVSU Laker Veterans luncheon where a veteran suicide prevention project was discussed.
Kendra Stanley-Mills

The Be My Unit concept would give veterans in crisis one-click access to a fellow veteran in their local community to talk to. An accompanying feature, dubbed Rally Call, would allow the veteran receiving the call to quickly add a mental health professional to the conversation, if needed.

Jared Lyon, president of Student Veterans of America, lauded the effort during the luncheon, saying it a positive step toward addressing problems with veteran suicide prevention programs that are not working.

“You’ve got something that you can add an instant intervention before you ever have to hang up the phone with that friend who called you, who trusts you, who didn't call the (Veterans Administration) for help,” Lyon said.

Lyon invited those involved in the work to share their findings with the VA, Department of Defense and others who are trying to find solutions to veteran mental health issues.

Wolfe said she’s excited to continue Grand Valley’s involvement in the design and prototyping work, which was led by Heather Tsavaris, CEO and founder of Mansfield, Ohio-based ATOMA.

GVSU veterans made up about 25 percent of the group that was interviewed in developing Be My Unit and Rally Call.

“When you see these students and you see the work that we’re doing, we’re clearly in the country leading the way in how we talk about student veterans, how we include them on campus, how we get past ‘thank you for your service, here’s a free hat,’” Wolfe said. “We’re doing real work, people to people, person to person, vet to vet to make sure that these incredible human beings are taken care of.”