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Op-Ed: Building hope through partnership to stop veteran suicide

The American flag. (Maxpixel/Released)

For most Americans, the holiday season is a time to celebrate with family members and friends. But for those who have lost a loved one to suicide, the holiday season can be a difficult time. For these families, an empty chair at the dinner table serves as a painful reminder that holiday festivities will never be the same. Holiday photos will never again be complete. In this season, we are reminded that suicide has lasting effects that do not end with the death of a loved one.

Suicide is a serious public health issue that impacts communities nationwide. It is the 10th-leading cause of death in the nation, costing the lives of more than 45,000 Americans — including 6,000 veterans — annually. However, acknowledging these powerful statistics is simply inadequate in our fight to end suicide.

Every suicide is a regrettable, deeply felt tragedy. We all grieve for the families and friends of those lost to suicide, but our sorrow, compassion and well wishes are insufficient to the task at hand. We all must do more.  

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and American Veterans (AMVETS) are committed to the principle that suicide is preventable. We recognize that even one suicide is one too many, and we believe that every advocate, public servant and stakeholder has a role in providing hope for those veterans at risk.

In this spirit and with an unflinching clarity of purpose, we have partnered to confront veteran suicide head-on. Recognizing the need for a robust national dialogue and well-equipped advocates, we are collaborating on an education program that will bolster our army of suicide prevention advocates. By drawing awareness to this public health challenge and empowering grass-roots advocates with an understanding of both the risk factors and the protective factors for suicide, we can exponentially increase our reach and impact. Put simply, we will develop a cadre of well-prepared suicide prevention advocates to reach more at-risk veterans, whether or not they choose to receive care at a VA facility.

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To do this, we all must play a role. Every one of us must be an engaged suicide prevention advocate. For those veterans who are facing tough times, we must offer hope. The foundation for that hope is understanding, and understanding begins with awareness. Our awareness starts with an attentiveness to potential suicide risk. Knowing that warning signs such as hopelessness, sleeplessness or increased use of alcohol are serious is important. And that factors such as social isolation, physical health issues such as chronic pain, legal or financial problems, relationship issues, mental health problems, and feeling like a burden on loved ones can increase an individual’s suicide risk. Moreover, veterans may be dealing with issues such as the residual impact of combat exposure and traumatic experiences, which are unique to the hazards of military life. When they are coupled with a familiarity with firearms, they can be cause for heightened concern.

But knowing the risk factors is not enough. We must also understand the factors that protect veterans from thoughts of suicide. These protective factors include finding a renewed sense of purpose, deepening social connectedness and — especially among veterans — rediscovering personal resiliency. Veterans are mission-driven. They are strong. They are trained to look out for each other. In too many cases, though, these dimensions of resiliency diminish once a veteran is out of uniform. We can all look for ways to help the Veterans in our lives discover and build up their own protective factors.  

How can you help? You can start by establishing a schedule for routine “buddy checks.” You can arrange peer mentoring opportunities with veterans who are thriving. And you can play an active role in providing suicide prevention education to veterans’ spouses, caregivers and communities through multiple venues and channels.

This is where Veterans Service Organizations (VSOs) add significant value to this national effort. VSOs like AMVETS are uniquely positioned to amplify the VA’s efforts through the exchange of information with clinical staff and agility in decision-making when a complex situation presents itself. VSOs are led by veterans and exist for veterans, working side-by-side to access health care, VA benefits and employment opportunities, services that can potentially resolve personal issues before a veteran reaches a crisis point.

VSOs empower veterans through a sense of belonging, an extremely critical aspect of life after military separation, while providing educational resources and peer mentoring. Since World War I, these organizations have done much of the “boots on the ground” work for the veterans in their local communities, and they play a critical role in helping veterans.

VA and AMVETS join all those who are committed to supporting veterans who confront crisis and helping to restore their hope. We will not relent in our efforts to save lives through early intervention and educational awareness, starting with a campaign to educate and empower those who can be there for at-risk veterans.

The VA is working closely with partners nationwide to expand its reach beyond VA facility walls, delivering care and support to at-risk veterans wherever they live, work and thrive. AMVETS will continue to make timely access to quality health care its top priority, so that veterans are healthy enough to take advantage of the myriad benefits, services and opportunities they have earned by virtue of their service. And because there is no one-size-fits-all approach to suicide prevention, we value the insights of policymakers, community-based partners and all VSOs on ways to expand and improve our efforts. We encourage all stakeholders to read the VA’s National Strategy for Preventing Veteran Suicide to understand more about where their organizations fit into national prevention efforts and how they can support our mission at the local level — where arguably the most important work takes place.

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Keita Franklin, Ph.D., is a member of the Senior Executive Service and the Executive Director of Suicide Prevention for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ Office of Mental Health and Suicide Prevention. Learn more about ways you can support the veterans in your life at bethereforveterans.com.

Sherman Gillums Jr. is a retired U.S. Marine Corps officer and Chief Advocacy Officer of AMVETS, a Congressionally chartered national Veterans Service Organization representing more than 20 million veterans. Learn more at  AMVETS  and the HEAL program.

If you or someone you know is in crisis, call the Veterans Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255 and Press 1, send a text message to 838255, or chat online at VeteransCrisisLine.net.

Reporters covering this issue are strongly encouraged to visit ReportingOnSuicide.org for important guidance on how to safely communicate about suicide.

All opinion articles are the opinion of the author and not necessarily of American Military News. If you are interested in submitting an Op-Ed, please email [email protected]