CHARLESTON, S.C. — To Army veteran Everett Brockington, 52, there’s no mystery about why so many #veterans die by #suicide: “They’ve seen things and done things that they can’t handle. And they’ve lost too many of their close friends.”
Most of the #veterans Brockington knows to rely on one another for support instead of seeking #mentalhealth services.
“We talk to each other about our problems all the time,” Brockington said. But he admitted, “It would be better if we had someone to talk to who knew what they were doing.”
Although retired and active military service members die by #suicide at twice the rate of civilians, research shows that #veterans who receive #mentalhealth care are much less likely to end their lives than those who don’t. A soon-to-be-released study from the Medical University of South Carolina here in Charleston may shed light on how to persuade reluctant #veterans to seek that professional help.
For #veterans, the primary barrier to treatment is the #stigma associated with seeking #mentalhealth services, which male veterans, in particular, consider a sign of weakness, said Tracy Stecker, a psychologist at the Medical University of South Carolina’s School of Nursing and the lead researcher in the study.
Fears and myths about #suicideprevention also get in the way, she said.
“#Veterans are afraid that if they admit they’re thinking about killing themselves, somebody will come to snatch them up and put them in a hospital and make them take medicine,” she said.
Stecker’s study, funded by the U.S. Department of Defense, aimed to find out whether a simple phone call could help #veterans suffering from #suicidal thoughts take that first critical step in seeking treatment.
She and a team of researchers called a thousand #veterans who volunteered to participate in the study. They screened them for six #mentalhealthsymptoms — sleep loss, post-traumatic stress syndrome, #depression, substance use, pain and suicidal thoughts or attempts — five times during the year after they initially made contact.
Half of the participants also received a call from a psychologist who discussed with them their fears and concerns about seeking #mentalhealth treatment. For any participants who decided they wanted treatment during the study, the researchers connected them directly to a local #mentalhealthprovider.
Stecker’s study, slated for publication later this summer, found that the veterans who simply talked on the phone to a #mentalhealthprofessional about getting help fared better in terms of #suicidalthoughts and other #mentalhealth symptoms than those who didn’t, and they were more than twice as likely to seek #mentalhealth care during suicidal episodes.
“That was our hypothesis going in,” Stecker said, “so it wasn’t surprising.”
“What was surprising was how easy it was to recruit a thousand #veterans from across the country who said they had considered or attempted #suicide, hadn’t received #mentalhealth services, and were willing to participate in our study.”
Nationwide, an average of 20 current and former military service members die by #suicide each day. Of those, an average of six were connected to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs health system. Only half of all veterans who need #mentalhealth services are receiving them, according to the VA.
But even as #suicide rates are rising in both the civilian and military populations, the rate of death by #suicide among #veterans connected to the VA health system is declining.
“The #VA has done a good job of focusing on #suicide and making sure that those in their health system get quality care,” said Jerry Reed, who heads a #suicideprevention research and advocacy group at the Washington, D.C.-based Education Development Center.
“The real challenge is to find the veterans who are not connected to the system. The VA is still trying to crack the code for finding those 14 #veterans of the 20 who take their lives every day in the civilian community.”
Charleston, home to the Citadel military academy and combined Air Force and Navy training center Joint Base Charleston, has the seventh-largest metropolitan concentration of military personnel in the country. South Carolina, with a population of roughly 5 million, ranks 11th in the nation for its percentage of the military in the adult population.
South Carolina’s suicide rate in 2017 was 16 per 100,000 people, slightly higher than the national average of 14. #Its veteran suicide rate is roughly equal to the national average of 30.
In 2018, a total of 815 South Carolina residents died by #suicide.
At the Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center here in Charleston, where more than 360 #mentalhealth practitioners see dozens of veterans every month who are haunted by #suicidal thoughts, it’s clear that many factors beyond the battlefield put #veterans at risk of ending their lives.
As in the general population, economic pressures, broken relationships, health problems, and loneliness are among more than 30 factors that the VA has determined can increase the risk of #suicide among retired and active-duty military personnel.
“What’s so shocking is that only 50% of the #veterans at high risk for #suicide are involved in getting #mentalhealth care,” said Dr. Donald Myrick, who heads the hospital’s #mentalhealth unit. He and his staff are trying to change that.
About a year ago, Myrick’s group started using a database that incorporated risk factors for his department’s more than 26,000 patients — including age, recent cancer diagnosis, divorce, substance use, homelessness and job loss — to predict who was at greatest risk of #suicide.
They found roughly 400 patients at high risk of #suicide and started calling them every week to see if they wanted help with #depression, #anxiety, #PTSD or #suicidalthoughts.
“We found that 70% were engaging with us,” Myrick said. “They were saying they wanted help, and they followed through.”
In addition, the Charleston-area VA embeds #mentalhealthprofessionals in its primary care clinics outside of the city so that #veterans seeking physical health care can see a therapist if their doctor thinks they may need one.
At the hospital in historic downtown Charleston, physicians and psychologists follow up with all discharged #mentalhealth patients, completing at least four phone calls with each patient to check on how they’re feeling.
#Veterans in Need
Brockington walks with a cane and wears a back brace. “I have so many medical problems, it’s #depressing,” he said. But sitting in front of the VA hospital here in late May, surrounded by palmettos and well-maintained gardens, he said he considers himself one of the lucky ones.
A South Carolina native, Brockington said he traveled nearly two hours to get to Charleston on a scorching afternoon last month so he could pick up a new CPAP breathing machine for his sleep apnea problems. He said he’s OK in the #mentalhealth department, though his face saddens when he talks about the prevalence of #suicide among his fellow veterans.
Sleep loss is a major #suiciderisk factor, Stecker said, as are chronic health problems. “Most people who are at risk of #suicide don’t know it,” she said. “That’s a big part of the problem.”
Welcome to the “next chapter” of my life… being a voice and an advocate for #mentalhealthawarenessandsuicideprevention, especially pertaining to our younger generation of students and student-athletes.
Getting men to speak up and reach out for help and assistance is one of my passions. Us men need to not suffer in silence or drown our sorrows in alcohol, hang out at bars and strip joints, or get involved with drug use.
Having gone through a recent bout of #depression and #suicidalthoughts myself, I realize now, that I can make a huge difference in the lives of so many by sharing my story, and by sharing various resources I come across as I work in this space. #http://bit.ly/JamesMentalHealthArticle
At the national level, the VA this year launched a multimillion-dollar social media and ad campaign to find #veterans who may be at elevated risk of #suicide.
That came after a scathing Government Accountability Office report that concluded lack of leadership in the department during the first year of the Trump administration had led to a failure to reach out to and educate #veterans about #suiciderisk and the value of #mentalhealthservices.
Since then, the VA’s #suicideprevention division has spent $12 million on outreach in 2018, including $1.5 million on paid media. This year’s #suicideprevention outreach budget is $20 million, according to the VA.
In addition, local #suicideprevention coordinators connected to the VA’s 170 medical centers nationwide held more than 20,000 outreach events to contact veterans at risk for suicide, according to the VA. As a result, they are now managing care for nearly 11,000 #veterans, according to the agency.
“We’re trying to improve our outreach to #veterans where they work, live and thrive in the community,” Dr. Keita Franklin, the VA’s director of #suicideprevention, told Stateline in an interview.
“When they’re in active duty, they’re taught a culture of ‘Fight on, push on, pull yourself up by your bootstraps.’ Then when they leave, we tell them they need to ask for help and come in and get #mentalhealth care. It’s a tough transition,” she said. “But we know that once they get into care they do better.”
Myrick’s group here in Charleston periodically sets up folding tables —with information on #mentalhealthservices and a professional to talk to — at local military bases, police and fire departments, armories, churches, and universities. In recent years, the events have resulted in hundreds of veterans seeking #mentalhealthservices, many of them for the first time.
How did Stecker and her team find a thousand #veterans willing to participate in their study? They placed ads on Craigslist, Facebook and other online outlets. The ads didn’t mention #suicide or #mentalhealth; they simply asked: “Are you considering seeking help?”