Public can help prevent veterans’ suicides

Suicide among veterans is an epidemic, compared with the rate of incidence in the general public, the numbers indicate.

And while Utah’s Veterans Health Administration says veterans themselves have received improved access to suicide prevention resources, the public could use a refresher course on how to assist current and former service members who may be at risk.

Next month, the Salt Lake City Vet Center will team up with the Weber County Library System to host the “Help Prevent Veteran Suicide” panel.

The open-forum discussion will include mental health experts from the Utah VHA, the Army, the Salt Lake City Police Department’s Crisis Intervention Team and Hill Air Force Base.

A screening of the HBO documentary film “Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1,” will precede the discussion. The film documents the veterans suicide problem by going behind the scenes of the Veterans Crisis Line, an offshoot of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline that offers crisis counseling and mental health referrals 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

The event will be 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Oct. 22 at the Pleasant Valley Library, 5568 S. Adams Ave., Washington Terrace. 

Karl DeVries, outreach coordinator for the Salt Lake Vet Center, said the forum is geared toward community education.

“We’re getting the right information out to the service members,” DeVries said. “But they may not be taking that information home to their families. And the wider community around them probably doesn’t know much (about veterans suicide prevention) at all.”

“So we asked the question, ‘How can we market this same information to the community,’ ” he said. “Not just (military) spouses, but the golf buddy, the neighbor down the street. Any trusted friend should have some basic information about how to help (a veteran) who might be at risk for suicide.” 

A 2012 Department of Veterans Affairs report that examined military suicide data between 1999 and 2009 showed that veterans made up more than 22 percent of all suicides in the United States during that time.

The report used data from 21 states, but noted that the “prevalence estimate is assumed to be constant across all U.S. states.” Based on those numbers, the report estimated that 22 veterans died from suicide every day in the years that were examined.

A 2014 update to the report indicated there were “no clear changes in suicide rates in the total population of VHA users or in male veterans overall” after including additional data from 2010 and 2011.

In 2011, the suicide rate among male veterans who used VA health services was 40 deaths per 100,000 people in the population, a number 3.25 times higher than the national average.

A study published in the Cleveland Clinic Journal of Medicine found that combat veterans are more likely to have suicidal thoughts, often associated with post-traumatic stress disorder and depression, and are more likely to act on a suicidal plan. Also, veterans may be less likely to seek help from mental health professionals.

DeVries said informing the community about veteran suicide should help bring down those numbers.

“As a society, if it’s not brought to our attention, we don’t do anything about it,” he said. 

The Veterans Crisis Line can be reached at 1-800-273-8255.

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