Preventing veterans’ suicide
IRON MOUNTAIN — September is Suicide Prevention Month and the Oscar G. Johnson Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Iron Mountain is doing its part to raise awareness for Veterans suicide.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Office of Mental Health and Suicide Prevention says that on average, 16.8 Veterans died of suicide per day in the year 2017 with 6,139 total Veterans deaths occurring that same year, according to the office’s 2019 annual report.
Although the 16.8 average is lower than seven of the previous 13 reported years, that number hasn’t fallen below 16 since 2006, which saw a 15.6 per day average.
Veterans in the 18-34 age range recorded the highest rate of Veteran suicides in 2017 at 44.5 per 100,000, up 76 percent since 2005. Veterans aged 55-74 showed the lowest suicide rate per 100,000 in 2017.
The numbers are tragic, which is why the national VA office is working diligently to bring Veteran suicides down through its “Be There” campaign.
“Be There” provides an array of helpful and important resources for Veterans and their families in times of need. The campaign helps folks learn about the warning signs of suicide, what someone can do to help and the free resources and programs available online.
“Suicide is preventable,” the campaign website reads. “‘Be There'” emphasizes the role each person plays in preventing Veteran suicide, inspiring hope and action among audiences by encouraging each of them to ‘Be There,’ even in small ways, to support Veterans throughout Suicide Prevention Month and each month after.”
Sharon Anastas, Suicide Prevention Coordinator at the VA Medical Center in Iron Mountain said the message of the campaign may seem simple, but it’s also vitally important.
“Suicide Prevention Month is a month-long initiative to spread awareness and connect families to their loved ones,” she said. “It may seem very basic, but it really is impactful and hits to what it’s really about.
“Over the years, I’ve had a lot of people ask me how they can ‘Be There’ for someone and wanting to make sure they’re helping someone. There’s no wrong or right way, it’s simply about being there for someone. Checking in, asking how they’re doing today or sharing a smile, we never really know the impact we can have on someone’s life.
“We encourage everyone to learn about some of the things we can do. Take action, a lot of people ask how they can help. One, educate yourself about suicide risks and the steps you can take to get someone help. Secondly, get involved. There are a lot of local events and organizations out there. A lot of communities across the country have county coalitions regarding mental health in general. If there’s an event being done, go volunteer at that event. There’s a lot of suicide prevention walks and volunteer opportunities within communities.
“Also think about starting the conversation. Some are hesitant to ask if someone is thinking about harming themselves, that it puts the thought in someones head more. If anything, it helps reverse the thought. It gives them permission to talk about what they’re going through and makes them not feel alone.”
COVID-19 has taken a toll on everyone across the world, and Veterans are no exception to that. Anastas said her team has worked around the clock to help Veterans remain connected over the last six months of a socially-distant planet.
“COVID is something everyone in the country and the world is wrestling with,” she said. “How can we make people feel connected and stay connected when we’re going through times like this where it may seem more isolated?”
One way is through VA Video Connect, a program allowing Veterans to meet with VA health care providers through live video.
“It connects Veterans with their VA providers through iPads, computers and cell phones,” Anastas said. “It’s really great for people that may not be able to get outside, not just due to COVID, but maybe bad weather. All you need is a good (internet) connection.
“We also post things to our Facebook page, uploading videos and sharing articles. Social media can be a great way to keep people connected. This month, we’ve been posting weekly videos of Veterans we’ve interviewed and what it’s meant to them to receive care. We encourage people to go to Facebook and look at those videos, we’ll have a few more each week through September.”
Last week, the Medical Center also hosted a drive-thru resource center, which allowed Veterans and their families to take in information and ask any questions they might’ve had regarding mental health.
“We have to maintain social distancing and keep people safe,” Anastas said. “We had several informational booths from community providers, the VA center, UPCAP and more. We just wanted to educate Veterans and their families about resources available and that if they know someone who is struggling, they can get those resources.”
Other helpful online resources Anastas mentioned are the VA’s Coaching Into Care program, Make the Connection program and the VA’s general mental health page. Coaching Into Care is a national phone service that helps Veterans and their families find the appropriate services at their local VA facilities and within their local communities. A licensed pshychologist or social worker provides loved ones with guidance in how to motivate a Veteran to seek help and support.
Make the Connection is similar to Coaching Into Care in the sense that it provides plenty of great resources and information for Veterans dealing with issues that affect their lives. The website shares success stories of hope and recovery from other Veterans’ experiences.
“There are a lot of great websites to go on and resources for people to use,” Anastas said. “Sometimes people hesitate to reach out, but are more inclined to go on the internet and that’s great too.”
For Coaching Into Care, visit www.mirecc.va.gov/coaching. For Make the Connection, visit www.maketheconnection.net and for the VA’s mental health page, visit www.mentalhealth.va.gov.
Anastas finished by stressing that suicide is preventable and resources are widely available for Veterans and families both on the internet and in the community.
“If we can really hit the takeaway, it’s that suicide is preventable,” she said. “Sometimes, people feel as if there’s nothing they can do. We truly know that being there and being a voice and being able to step in really does make a difference.
“There are things we can do. It’s about educating ourselves, taking action and reaching out. Call us at the VA and see what we can do to help. We want to spread a positive and hopeful message that we can help.”
According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, 48,344 Americans died about suicide in 2018. There were 1.4 million suicide attempts in that same year and suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States.
If you’re having thoughts of suicide and are seeking help, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or don’t hesitate to reach out to a loved one.
For the Veterans Crisis Line, you can dial the same number and press 1, or you can text 838255 or chat online at www.veteranscrisisline.net/chat.
For more information, visit www.bethereforveterans.com.
For more information on the Oscar G. Johnson VA Medical Center in Iron Mountain, visit its website at www.ironmountain.va.gov or call 906-774-3300. You can also connect with the medical center on Facebook at www.facebook.com/vaironmountain.
Ryan Spitza can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 248. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.