In 2012, the Veterans Affairs Department estimated that 22 veterans die each day due to suicide. While some groups questioned the accuracy of the number, especially because four states were not included in the calculations, it is a fact that there is a high rate of suicide among veterans. So much so, in fact, that the VA is bringing in mental health experts, advocates, and affected families to create an action plan to reduce suicide among veterans. While the VA works on its plan, there are some steps families and loved ones of veterans can take now to help prevent suicide among veterans.
1. Get support from the Veterans Crisis Line
Often, veterans and their loved ones do not know where to turn for help. If you or your veteran is in crisis, the Veterans Crisis Line is available to offer free, confidential support 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. Veterans and their loved ones may reach the Veterans Crisis Line by calling 1-800-273-8255 and pressing 1, sending a text to 838255, or chatting online. Veterans do not need to be registered with the VA or enrolled in VA health care to get support.
Veterans Crisis Line responders are specially trained and experienced in helping veterans. Veterans of any age may call the Veterans Crisis Line to get help with a range of issues, including coping with mental health issues, dealing with relationships, and transitioning back to civilian life.
2. Get involved in an alternative support group
Veterans often feel ashamed or believe there is a stigma associated with mental health challenges and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). As a result, they avoid seeking help and turn to suicide because they believe it is their only option. One tip for preventing suicide among veterans is to get them involved in alternative support groups. Many veterans do not feel comfortable in a traditional therapy setting, but there are support groups that offer help for veterans in non-traditional ways.
One such program is Horses for Heroes. Offered in various places throughout the country, Horses for Heroes offers therapy that focuses on a close bond between horse and rider and is considered an alternative rehabilitation program.
Veterans work individually with a horse and a therapist, and the program helps to build a veteran’s confidence and develop a relationship with the horse; veterans then work to translate these skills to day-to-day life. One other positive aspect of alternative support groups for veterans is that it gets them out of their homes and interact with others.
3. Be aware of substance abuse that can lead to suicidal thoughts and behaviors
There is a high rate of substance abuse among veterans: 27% of veterans recently deployed to Iraq screened positive for alcohol misuse; in recently-deployed military personnel with combat exposure, there is a binge drinking rate of 53%. Heavy alcohol and tobacco use as well prescription drug abuse are much more prevalent among military personnel.
Unfortunately, veterans who struggle with PTSD often turn to drugs or alcohol to self-medicate and attempt to cope with the trauma, depression, and anxiety that results from PTSD. Occasional drinking or using recreational drugs can quickly become addiction for these veterans. And, alcoholism or drug addiction often increases the risk of suicidal thoughts and behaviors in veterans who are depressed, have PTSD, or struggle with other underlying mental health issues.
There is a well-documented link between PTSD and substance abuse, and studies also show an increased risk of suicide among veterans as a whole, particularly among those with substance abuse issues or addiction. A Department of Defense Suicide Event Report for 2014 reported more than 1,110 suicide attempts, and “the most common method of attempting suicide was the use of drugs (illicit or prescription) and/or alcohol.”
If you think that your veteran is struggling with substance abuse and suicidal thoughts or behaviors, you need to get help right away. You can begin by calling the Veterans Crisis Line, enlisting the help of your local VA, or contacting your family doctor. The most important thing you can do is to act and not wait.
Image via Flickr by Murph4513
Jennifer McGregor is the co-creator of PublicHealthLibrary.org, which was made for one of her pre-med classes as a project. With the site, she intends to provide various resources pertaining to medical inquiries and general health. When Jennifer is not busy being a student, she enjoys walking her dog through the park.