The Purple Heart Foundation recognizes that suicide among US veterans is at an alarming rate. This is an issue that affects both male and female veterans. It is an issue that plagues veterans from every branch of the Armed Forces. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, 22 veterans commit suicide every single day. Twenty-two heroes who have fought to protect the American homeland. Twenty-two heroes who volunteered for a life away from home and from their loved ones. Twenty-two heroes who upon returning were failed by a riddled system and did not get proper treatment. There is stigma attached to those who have thought about it, tried it, or ultimately did commit suicide.
The Purple Heart Foundation wants to paint a broad picture for the American public about suicide and the prevention that is possible. It is a delicate issue that deserves an open mind from all Americans. The veteran community needs the American people to know what is happening and how they can help. The simple fact that it happens is a disservice to the men and women who have sacrificed so much for the United States of America and it cannot go unnoticed any longer.
In order to understand why veterans take their own lives or think about suicide, it is imperative to have a basic understanding of the generalities and studies behind it. The Purple Heart Foundation spoke with Coalition & Community Development Coordinator Allison Esber, MSSA, LSW, OCPSA. Ms. Esber works for Stark County Mental Health & Addiction Recovery in Canton, Ohio. She is a trained and certified expert on suicide and prevention.
In her professional opinion, Ms. Esber believes there are multiple reasons and situations leading someone to take their life. “There is not one single cause, factor, or event that will make a person feel suicidal. There are many stressors that can cause a person to feel out of control, trapped, or unable to change what is happening,” said Esber. This occurs in the lives of those who have served the nation as well. If you know someone, whether a veteran or not, that has displayed some of these characteristics then you can be the first step in identifying the potential risk by starting a dialogue.
Of course, other factors like Post Traumatic Stress, Traumatic Brain Injury, some prescription drugs, and depression play a role in their process, “Suicide may occur when the stressors outweigh a person’s ability to cope. This threshold is different for everyone, as every individual responds differently to different stressors. What a person considers a stressor varies greatly from one person to another, although some common themes are a loss or major change (i.e. relationship, death, job, move), problems at work, school, or in relationships, untreated mental illness, problems with alcohol or drugs, chronic health problems, previous suicide attempt, family history of suicide,” said Esber.
Ms. Esber stresses that, “Suicide impacts all groups- no gender, age, racial and ethnic background, socioeconomic status, culture, sexual orientation, disabilities/abilities or occupations, are immune. However, the risks factors may change throughout groups.” This includes veterans and those on active duty. There is no simple definition or one reason as to why those who commit suicide choose to.
So how can you, as a member of the public, discern if someone is suicidal or not? There are visible signs displayed by individuals contemplating suicide. Ms. Esber believes that, “There are warning signs that individuals who may be thinking about suicide that others may be able to recognize. If any of these signs are recognizable- reach out for help. These include: talking, writing, drawing, posting (on social media) about death or suicide, talks about feeling like a burden to others, feeling trapped, hopeless, helpless or worthless.”
It is not just their emotional behavior that offers signs of suicide but the choices they make can be factors as well. “Individuals who may be thinking about suicide may increase use of alcohol or drugs, look for ways to kill themselves, engage in more risky behaviors, withdrawal from friends, family, and activities. People may have changes in the sleep, appetite, or mood. Some mood changes may be depression, rage, irritability, anxiety, humiliation, sadness, or sometimes individuals may seem more peaceful (due to the person potentially making a decision and coming to peace with that decision),” said Esber.
Individuals may be questioning whether or not they should get involved and if doing so would make a difference. The simple answer is that it can be life saving if you these warning signs, you say something to that person and offer to find some help. “Offer help. Offer hope. Listen,” said Esber.
Ms. Esber believes individuals who may have considered or attempted suicide may feel a great deal of stigma, even long before their attempt. “Individuals who may have a mental health or substance use disorder may experience stigma due to lack of knowledge and understanding by people in their lives. Individuals who experience stigma may not seek treatment or help for their problems, and often these problems do not subside on their own,” said Esber.
“Survivors of Suicide (those who have lost loved ones to suicide), often experience this stigma as well. We rarely see obituaries that report an individual died by suicide, as it still is such a taboo topic in society,” said Esber. “It was not that long ago that talking about cancer was taboo, but society has made great strides in accepting physical health conditions, but unfortunately we have not made the same advancements in behavioral health. However, with over 40,000 people dying by suicide in the United States, it is likely that many individuals have been impacted by someone dying by suicide.”
“Ask the question, “Are you thinking about suicide?”, if they recognize warning signs and risk factors. Know the numbers of where to get help, and stay with the person while they make connections to get help. There are a number of trainings available to individuals who want more information, such as Mental Health First Aid, QPR (Question. Persuade. Refer), Kognito, and others. The Suicide Prevention Resource Center has a great list of options available. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) and local chapters are another great resource,” said Esber.
The Veterans Crisis Line is even expanding to a new office in Atlanta to field more calls. Of those that commit suicide, only six utilize services of the VA. The Veterans Crisis Line is adding a new office because of an uptick in calls and texts from veterans across the country. The 24-hour hotline has fielded more than 2.6 million calls and has worked with emergency services more than 67,000 times in the program’s nine-year history.
Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson told Military Times that, “The work at the Veterans Crisis Line is some of the most important work we do in VA. Today we follow through on our commitment to give those who save lives every day at the Crisis Line the training, additional staff and modern call center technology they need to make the Veterans Crisis Line a gold standard operation.” This new addition means that there will now be 500 call responders and there will be an increase in the number of social service assistants from 43 to approximately 80.
Help is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week from the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800-273-TALK) and the Crisis Text Line at 741741. There is a Veterans Crisis Line that is also available. They offer a suicide prevention hotline that can be reached at 1-800-273-8255 and Press 1. The VCL offers an online chat or the individual can send a text message to 838255 to receive confidential support 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. There are also resources available for the deaf and hard of hearing.
The Purple Heart Foundation acknowledges that the transition from battlefield to the home front can be a difficult one. It is the goal of The Purple Heart Foundation to make that transition as smooth as possible for all veterans. Suicide is a prevalent issue and too many veterans are dying everyday for multiple reasons outlined in the information provided by Ms. Esber. The Purple Heart Foundation believes that educating the public and veterans about services available will help everyone understand the issue at hand better. Veterans should know that they are not alone in their journey. The Purple Heart Foundation prides itself on being the only veteran service organization with an entire membership that was wounded in combat. You can show your support for these brave men and women who have sacrificed so much for our country by making a one-time or monthly pledge to ensure veterans continue to get the support and benefits they deserve by clicking here.