Op-Ed: Veteran suicide is a preventable tragedy

by Dr. Brett D. Rusch

Suicide is one of the 10 leading causes of death. In the United States, over 42,000 people kill themselves every year and 18 percent of them are veterans. On average, 20 veterans a day die from suicide. We know that in 2014, Vermont lost 24 veterans to suicide, making the suicide rate for Vermont veterans more than three times higher than that of average U.S. citizens.

The Veterans Administration and one Vermonter, Valerie Pallotta, are working together to raise awareness about veteran suicide and to educate our communities on ways to prevent suicides among our veteran population.

The Vermont House or Representatives passed resolution H.C.R. 237 designating April 2018 as Veterans Suicide Awareness Month in Vermont. This is a crucial time for us all to acknowledge the high rates of veteran suicide in Vermont and to think about the role that each of us can play in getting to zero.

Veterans Affairs is aggressively undertaking new measures to prevent suicide, and the staff of the White River Junction VA Medical Center has made a commitment to this being our top clinical priority.

Through expansion of the 24/7 Veteran Crisis Line, 1-800-273-8255 PRESS 1, the VA is using predicative analysis to identify those at risk and to intervene early. We have also focused on bolstering mental health services for women, expanding tele-mental health services to better reach veterans living in rural areas and on creating innovative public-private partnerships.

Please join me in recognizing suicide prevention as a critical public health issue and in recognizing the impact that veteran suicide death is having on our state. Most people who die from suicide have a treatable mental health condition such as depression or PTSD, or are struggling with substance use at the time of their death. Of the 20 veterans a day that die from suicide, only six are receiving care at the VA.

We also know that male veterans that access VA care are three times less likely to kill themselves than those who do not, while female veterans who access VA care are 21 times less likely to kill themselves than those who do not.

If you are a veteran reading this message, I want you to know that care is available, and that it works.

If you are not a veteran, I need your help. If you know or love a veteran, please share this message with them.

Together we can help people who struggle to seek help, improve the quality of their lives and stop this tragic loss of life. If you know a veteran who is struggling and is reluctant to seek care, there is a great resource called “Coaching Into Care.” This assists family members and friends in helping a veteran seek care. If you or a veteran you know is in crisis please call the Veteran’s Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255 and PRESS 1.

Every veteran suicide is a tragic outcome. Join us in this fight to stop veteran suicides.

Brett D. Rusch, M.D., is the acting medical center director at the White River Junction VA Medical Center and an assistant professor of psychiatry at Dartmouth College’s Geisel School of Medicine.

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