Military veterans are trained in weapons use, making them particularly proficient at committing suicide.
But the causes of suicides in veterans, the rate of which is disproportionately higher than the general population, are complex.
There are a wide range of physical and emotional issues, many of which are specific to veterans — especially those who saw combat, said Sung R. Do, licensed clinical social worker at the Cleveland VA Medical Center. “You would be hard-pressed to find a person who doesn’t know a veteran who hasn’t been impacted by suicide. On average, 18 veterans commit suicide every day,” said Do, suicide- prevention coordinator for the Youngstown, Warren and East Liverpool/Calcutta VA outpatient clinics.
About 34,000 people in the U.S. commit suicide annually, and, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs, 20 percent are veterans.
People think being a suicide prevention coordinator must be depressing, said Do in a presentation, “Suicide Prevention,” one of a series of seminars for health-care professionals sponsored by Eastern Ohio Area Health Education Center, Youngstown State University Metro College, Help Hotline Crisis Center, the VA and Neil Kennedy Recovery Clinic.
“There is sadness, but we deal with the life-affirming side of the issue. That’s what gets me excited. We reach out to people who are down and out. We don’t run away from them,” Do said.
The goals are to recognize signs and intervene, he added.
“Veterans on paper look spectacular. But when they sit down, they talk about their depression, a major cause of suicide. Their war is not just [from] without, but from within too” he said.
The importance and power of mental health can’t be overstated as it ties to suicide.
For instance, the adjustment from military life to civilian life can be difficult.
Veterans on active duty wake up in the morning and know what their jobs and roles are and how to do and fulfill them.
While deployed, they were hyper-vigilant non-stop, and may have experienced all kinds of trauma. But, the survival skills that kept them alive in combat don’t always translate to working in the states.
In civilian life they have many roles — spouse, parent, employee — and advancement in technology while they were deployed may require retraining or additional education.
The VA is here to help, although sometimes stigma and fear keep veterans from reaching out, said Do, who previously worked at the Syracuse, N.Y., VA and the St. Peter’s Addiction Recovery Center in Albany, N.Y.
Do urged veterans to call the Veterans Crisis Line at 800-273-8255 and press 1.
“It used to be called the Suicide Line. We changed the name because suicide was too specific. We’re here for any crisis,” he said.
A phone call to the VCL can link veterans with housing, help with enrollment of benefits, mental health and primary care services, and it can initiate lifesaving rescues, Do said.
Since its inception in 2007, the VCL has answered more than 814,000 calls and made more than 28,000 life-saving rescues. In 2009, an anonymous online chat service was added, and in 2011 a text messaging service was introduced.
Locally, Help Hotline Crisis Center operates a 24/7 suicide prevention, intervention, and post-intervention service certified by the American Association of Suicidology which people can access by calling 1-800-427-3606. Help Hotline also works with the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (NSPL), which transfers calls it receives from the Mahoning Valley to Help Hotline. The NSPL phone number is 1-800-273-8255.
“As counselors, we have to take the threat of suicide seriously every time. Are we insightful enough to absolutely know if the intention is real or not? We are in the business of saving lives. Who cares if we think the threat is real or not. If we are wrong, there is a dead person. Take every call seriously,” Do said .
One of the best intervention strategies is to thank veterans them for their service, he said.
The veteran might say he did what he was supposed to do, and that anyone would have done the same.
“Just thank them, and ask them how you can help,” Do said.
Mental health and physical health are connected; and yes, there are things we can do to head off suicide.
A warning sign of potential suicide, a huge red flag, is if a person cannot see that there is a tomorrow, he said.
“You can show them there is a tomorrow. You tell the veteran, you keep coming back. I’ll be here and we’ll work on this together. I’ve never known one veteran who didn’t possess resilience,” Do said.