Veteran suicide – Growing Numbers, Intensified Outreach

Why are so many doing this? What is wrong?

By Hugh Lessig –


HAMPTON — — Sleep was dangerous for me. I couldn’t handle the nightmares. I thought I was psychotic. I diagnosed myself with anything other than PTSD.
I came up with a plan to end the pain, end the nightmares and keep the people I loved from being hurt. I grabbed my pistol, inserted a fully loaded magazine, chambered a round and put the gun to my head. As I was about to end my life, my wife walked into the room . . .

This comes from a narrative written by a young Marine who entered the Hampton VA Medical Center seeking help for post-traumatic stress disorder. He had spent seven months at a tiny firebase in Afghanistan where daily attacks were the norm. He came close to getting killed and killed others to stay alive. Within a month of coming home, he retreated into isolation and alcohol. He couldn’t handle the nightmares and began sleeping apart from his wife.
His life was going downhill, and statistics show he was far from alone.
Persistent problem
Suicides among active-duty U.S. service members have been a concern for years. In 2012, a record 349 American troops killed themselves, more than were lost fighting the enemy in Afghanistan.
In February, the U.S. government issued its most extensive study on veteran suicides, and it showed a higher rate than previously estimated. Covering 1999 to 2012, it showed a rate of 22 deaths a day, or about one every 65 minutes. That compared with a less precise estimate in 2007 that showed about 18 deaths per day.
The veterans study has its limitations. It is based on information provided by 21 states – Virginia provided partial information — and does not fully reflect the American population at large. Still, it was considered statistically significant for purposes of analysis.
Although veteran suicides had risen in raw numbers, the study also showed the percentage of all U.S. suicides identified as “veteran” declined from 1999 to 2003 and remained relatively constant in subsequent years. Officials at the Department of Affairs said that indicated some progress.
But as more veterans pour into the system, the VA has pledged to expand the war on mental illness, adding staff and working harder to publicize its services, including a veterans crisis line that has seen a steady increase in calls since being establishment in 2009.
“Outreach remains critically important,” said VA Under Secretary for Health Robert A. Petzel.
The national trend is evident at the Hampton VA Medical Center, where more veterans from the post-911 generation are coming through the door, some like that Marine, who need immediate help.
By the numbers
The patient population at Hampton grew by 7.8 percent in fiscal year 2012, said spokesman James Coty. At present, more than 40,000 veterans in southeastern Virginia and northeastern North Carolina rely on the center as their primary health care provider.
Younger veterans are a growth area. The center has a free standing clinic dedicated to former service members who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan, formally known as the OEF/OIF/OND Clinic, the acronyms of those missions which have defined the 10-year war on terror.
In fiscal year 2012, the clinic treated 6,935 patients. During the first half of this fiscal year – from October through April – it has already seen 5,501 patients.
The staff is surging to keep pace.
The medical center is actively recruiting mental health staff, projecting to go from 250 to 316. tHat includes psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, counselors and other specialists, plus the administrative staff to support them. Part of the increase was prompted by the VA’s nationwide push to hire more than 1,600 mental health professionals across its system. In addition, Hampton had already started specific recruitment efforts, said Dr. Priscilla Hankins, chief of mental health services at Hampton.
Once in the system, mental health treatment will vary.
“It really depends on the individual and what they are willing to commit to,” Hankins said.
One effective method is exposure therapy, where patients confront their traumatic experiences. But not everyone goes for it.
“That is a very intensive sort of treatment, but it is one that really does have a good outcome – if you can get someone to commit,” she said.
If an initial assessment turns up positive for problems like post traumatic stress disorder or depression, it triggers a second screening for suicide risk. If that’s positive, the VA decides on the appropriate level of treatment, whether it be hospital care or regular visits with a counselor.
One thing is clear: Without treatment, a person’s life can spiral out of control.
Feeling alone
When my wife filed for divorce, I felt alone, hopeless. I spiraled farther into a dark abyss of hopelessness and fear. The nightmares and flashbacks were still haunting me. I never felt at ease, never felt safe. The homicidal and suicidal ideations flooded back, forcing me back to the bottle to help dampen the memories.
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