KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Jason Blakemore, a service officer at the VFW’s St. Louis regional office, works with veterans to make sure they get access to help, from benefits to mental health care.
That made it more painful when he recently tried to contact a friend from his tour in Iraq to find that the soldier had committed suicide.
Blakemore’s friend had three overseas duty tours – two in Iraq and one in Afghanistan – within a five-year timeframe.
“I was shocked,” he said. “He wasn’t the personality you would have expected going that far, but multiple tours are very hard on folks. They kill relationships and if you don’t have that, you come home without a social support structure.”
According to statistics from the U.S. Department of Veteran’s Affairs, the suicide rate among veterans ages 18 to 29 is particularly high. Through 2007, veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan were 21 percent more likely to commit suicide than the general population.
This spike in suicides in recent years prompted the VA to analyze what it could do to help prevent the problem. Among the resulting changes were a national suicide hotline and suicide prevention coordinators at each VA hospital nationwide.
“We know there is a problem,” said Jim Gleisberg, public affairs officer for the VA’s Eastern Kansas healthcare system covering Topeka and Leavenworth.
The Topeka hospital provides mental health services including acute inpatient and outpatient care, drug and alcohol abuse programs, individual and group counseling and military sexual trauma for women.
“A lot of our vets who are seeking suicide as a method of release have other problems as well,” Gleisberg said. “That’s why we offer such a variety of programs.”
In 2009, the VA implemented an online suicide prevention chat service that has since been used by almost 17,000 people.
In 2007, the agency partnered with the National Suicide Prevention Hotline (1-800-273-TALK) based in New York to funnel calls from veterans to VA professionals. To date, 259,000 veterans or their family members have called the Veteran’s Crisis Line and more than 15,000 suicides have been prevented, officials said.
If veterans calling the crisis hotline are deemed at high risk for suicide, a local police department is contacted to get the individual to the closest hospital for help.
If there is no immediate threat of harm, the individual’s contact information is put into a database and a suicide prevention coordinator from a nearby VA hospital has 24 hours to contact them.
Cherie Durkin, a suicide prevention coordinator at the VA hospital in Kansas City, Mo., said the coordinators contact the person and try to get them into the health system.
Whether they come to the hospital or not, she follows up with the individual once a week for a month. She keeps in contact for 90 days after that by phone or letter in an attempt to get the veteran treatment.
“The whole purpose is to get them established in treatment whether they need help with substance abuse or PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder),” she said. “Everyone sees a psychiatrist for a review to see where they are at, if they need meds, etc. and then go from there.”
The coordinators don’t follow up with everyone after they have gotten help, but Durkin said the system’s electronic medical records make it easy for her to make sure they are getting assistance over the long term.
“The VA offers so many services … people come in and out of the system on their own once they know what the services are,” she said. “If there isn’t activity in a while, we reach out to make sure they are OK.”
The VA also has other programs including suicide prevention education for its employees and veterans’ families, public service announcements and Web advertising. It also has two centers devoted to research and education related to suicide prevention.
It’s not just combat veterans who are committing suicide. A 2011 article in the Army Times found that 68 percent of Air Force personnel and more than 80 percent of U.S. marines who committed suicide were never combat deployed. As for the Army, 70 percent of suicides had never seen combat or had only been deployed for it once.
“There is more to the story that may not be related to military service at all,” said Col. Paula Dayringer of the Missouri National Guard. “I think the matter is more societal than military-related. This year we have had one suicide and it was not a (combat) veteran, they were never deployed.”
In 2010, she said, there were seven – at least half of whom had never seen combat.
She said the guard has a “robust” suicide prevention program that trains soldiers to be resilient in all aspects of their lives from finances to reintegration with society after leaving the service.
The Guard also created regional care teams this year that respond to individuals in crisis or identified by others to be at risk.
She said they the Guard advertises the care teams and have made it a point to let people know it’s OK to ask for help.
But as Blakemore knows all too well, it’s not always easy to ask for help.
“The services out there are adequate … but the VA won’t drive up to their doorstep and offer services,” he said. “And it’s hard to self-advocate when you don’t think there is an issue or are so down in the dumps that you don’t want to.”