Trying to Prevent Veteran Suicides

Shortly before his death on June 10, Army veteran Daniel Somers wrote a note for his family.

“I am left with basically nothing,” he typed on his laptop at their Phoenix townhouse. “Too trapped in a war to be at peace, too damaged to be at war.”  Daniel’s service in Iraq, including multiple combat missions as a turret gunner, left him with severe post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injury.  But the government, he wrote, had “turned around and abandoned me.”

Somers felt frustrated in his efforts to get mental health and medical care from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). He was caught in VA’s notorious disability claims backlog, which at its peak in March included more than 900,000 compensation requests from veterans, two thirds of them waiting for over 125 days.  When Somers died, his case seeking full disability for his PTSD had been awaiting resolution for 20 months.

“Is it any wonder then that the latest figures show 22 veterans killing themselves each day?” Somers asked in his note.

The VA has currently developed a system to move all disability claims to the digital realm, where with the use of computer programs, they can become current on all claims, and stay current.  In a statement expressing condolences for Somers’s death, VA said that it “has made strong progress in the treatment of mental health disorders” in recent years, including hiring more than 1,600 mental health professionals in the past year, developing a suicide-prevention program to identify those at risk and bolstering its 24-hour Veterans Crisis Line. Over the past year, the Phoenix VA medical center has hired 32 health workers.

“Still, more must be done,” the department said.

Nearly one in every five suicides nationally is a veteran – 18 to 20 percent annually – compared with Census data that shows veterans make up about 10 percent of the U.S. adult population.

A 2007 law required the VA to increase its suicide prevention efforts. Since then, the department’s efforts include educating the public about suicide risk factors, providing additional mental health resources for veterans and tracking veteran suicides in each state. The VA’s mental health care staff and budget have grown by nearly 40 percent over the last six years, and more Veterans are seeking mental health treatment.

One of the most important results the VA has gotten since 2007 is the Veterans Crisis Line.  The Veterans Crisis Line – a national phone line – has experienced a steady increase in the number of calls, texts and chat session visits from former soldiers struggling with suicidal thoughts. In 2007, its first year, 9,379 calls went to the crisis line. Each year, the call volume has increased, reaching 193,507 calls in 2012.

“It’s discouraging to keep looking at the suicide rates, and we have to keep plugging away,” said Dr. Jan Kemp, the VA national suicide-prevention coordinator, and program manager of the crisis line. But she said without resources such as the crisis line, “the rates would be higher.”

The VA continues to research leading causes in veteran suicides, and how they can better help prevent it. One of those leading causes is Veterans experience periods of readjusting into civilian life.  Traits and training needed to survive in a war zone – like maintaining constant alertness – might contribute to troubling behaviors in civilian life, including edgy feeling while being easily startled. These behaviors can lead to more stress, and bring back memories from their service, leading their mind into PTSD.

Clinton Hall, 35, lives in Portland, Oregon, working as a supply-chain analyst. He served in Iraq and Afghanistan as an Army specialist and was discharged in 2007.  One of his close friends, who was also a veteran, committed suicide upon coming home.

“The bad part about it is that he didn’t give us a chance to talk. I mean, if he had just said, ‘Hey, Clint I’m thinking about doing this.’ I could have said, hey man, I’m thinking about doing it too.  You got to have that conversation. You have to tell somebody, as embarrassing as it is,” he said.

Hall, who was diagnosed with PTSD following his return home, had a message from veterans who might struggle – as he did – with suicidal thoughts:

“Talk to anybody.  If you’ve got a number or an email address for your battle buddies, reach out to them. Chances are, they’re feeling the same way you do.  If you don’t have anybody to talk to, call the VA. Call the suicide prevention hotline. Hell, if you can find me on Google, contact me and we’ll talk. But don’t do it (commit suicide). I’m thinking about it too, I know other people are too. But don’t do it.”

The Veterans Crisis Line can be reached online or by calling 800-273-8255.


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