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Home News Preventing suicide: What VA wants you to know

Preventing suicide: What VA wants you to know

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With September being National Suicide Prevention Month, The American Legion recently interviewed Dr. Matthew A. Miller, VA’s acting executive director for suicide prevention, about efforts to reduce the veteran suicide rate.

The American Legion: VA recently shared with American Legion members the National Strategy for Preventing Veteran Suicide. What is the strategy’s role in VA’s suicide prevention program?

Miller: All of VA’s suicide prevention efforts, whether they are at the federal, state or local level, are guided by the National Strategy for Preventing Veteran Suicide. This 10-year plan provides a framework for understanding suicide as a public health problem, identifying priorities, organizing efforts, and focusing national attention and community resources to prevent suicide among veterans.

TAL: What is the public health approach to combatting veteran suicide?

Miller: VA follows a systematic approach used by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for combating public health concerns. The public health approach uses science to address multiple risk factors for suicide and prevent suicidal thoughts and behaviors from occurring. It asks questions such as: Where does the problem begin? How could we prevent it from occurring in the first place? This enables us to reach beyond the VA health-care system and the individual to involve peers, family members and communities in preventing suicide. In doing so, it broadens our prevention approach and allows us to collaborate with veterans service organizations such as The American Legion and other stakeholders.

TAL: What should Legionnaires know about Suicide Prevention Month?

Miller: While VA works year-round on preventing veteran suicide, we ramp up efforts each September. In 2018, the Suicide Prevention Program’s #BeThere campaign included several Facebook Live events that reached more than 160,000 people and a satellite media tour that reached more than 8.9 million television viewers and 33.9 million radio listeners. Through this outreach, we generated more than 347,000 visits to the Veterans Crisis Line website. This September, VA will expand its #BeThere campaign, empowering communities to raise awareness about mental health and suicide prevention and to educate veterans and their families about the resources available to them.

For instance, we are re-launching BeThereForVeterans.com. The website includes resources for making a difference, a message generator tool for connecting with loved ones using safe messaging, and prepared social media content for spreading the word.

TAL: How can a caregiver or friend help a veteran who may be at risk of suicide?

There are multiple resources available. Among them:

  • The Veterans Crisis Line connects veterans and their families and friends with qualified, caring VA responders. Call 1-800-273-8255 and Press 1. Or text to 838255, or chat online at VeteransCrisisLine.net to receive confidential crisis intervention and support available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

  • Share the #BeThere call to action. Share BeThereforVeterans.com with your fellow veterans, their families and friends, and your social media followers. Add the #BeThere campaign hashtag, logo and webpage to your email signature block.

  • Use safe messaging. Download and share the safe messaging fact sheet to ensure suicide is reported and discussed responsibly. How suicide is depicted can influence behavior negatively, by contributing to contagion, or positively, by encouraging help-seeking. Use this fact sheet when talking about suicide and share it with local media representatives.

  • Watch and share the VA Public Health Video. VA’s goal is to prevent suicide among all veterans, including those who do not and may never, come to VA for care. To do that, VA has adopted a public health approach to suicide prevention – driven by data and best practices – that looks beyond the individual to involve peers, family members and the community. This video explains the strategy behind and potential impact of the public health approach.

  • Make the Connection. Visit MakeTheConnection.net to discover an online resource that connects veterans, their family members and friends, and other supporters with information and solutions to issues affecting their lives.

  • Share the Be There for Veterans PSA. This inspirational video, which is narrated by actor and filmmaker Tom Hanks, issues a call to action that underscores VA’s public health approach to preventing veteran suicide, which encourages everyone to make suicide prevention their business.

  • Be a suicide prevention advocate on social media. Download and share VA’s Social Media Safety Toolkit for Veterans, Their Families, and Friends, which equips individuals with the knowledge they need to respond to social media posts that indicate a veteran may be having thoughts of suicide.

  • Get and share S.A.V.E. training. A free training video, found at https://psycharmor.org/courses/s-a-v-e, helps anyone recognize suicide risk factors and warning signs.

  • Download the Suicide Prevention Month toolkit. Visit VA.gov/BeThere to download Suicide Prevention Month resources, and share them throughout the month through your website, social media, email blasts and employee newsletters.

  • Download and share suicide prevention educational materials all year. Visit VeteransCrisisLine.net/support/shareablematerials and include these educational materials on your website, in email blasts, and in employee newsletters.

TAL: We hear a lot about the 20 veteran lives lost to suicide every day. Is this statistic accurate?

Miller: It’s important to understand that suicide is a national public health problem, not just a problem among veterans. It is estimated that more than 45,000 Americans die by suicide each year, approximately 6,300 (14 percent) of whom are veterans. At VA, we believe that no one is a statistic, and that one veteran life lost is too many.

To better understand veteran suicide on a whole, we need to look at trends among both the broader veteran population and veteran subgroups, over time. This helps us to identify complex risk factors that may have an impact on veterans, to develop appropriate programs and resources, and to better measure our progress. This is another example of how critical it is that our partners, especially our VSO partners, embrace the public health approach to help us reach veterans outside the VA system of care.

Suicide is preventable, and treatment works. Responsibly storing firearms, safely disposing of old medications, and encouraging everyone we know to seek help when they are going through an emotional crisis can save lives. Every day, people across the nation reach out for support and live healthy, productive lives. Data about how many veterans die by suicide does not capture the experiences of the vast majority of the 20 million U.S. veterans, who are thriving members of our communities.

Lastly, we’d like everyone to understand the value of safe messaging when talking about suicide. Research shows a significant correlation between a highly publicized death by suicide and increases in both suicide rates and calls to help lines. This phenomenon is known as suicide contagion, and it is a significant risk to those who have thoughts of suicide. It is also a considerable hardship for those who are grieving a loss to suicide. We want to remove the stigma surrounding suicide by talking about it responsibly and encouraging help-seeking behaviors. We want everyone to think about unintended consequences in unsafe messaging, and work with us to talk about suicide without sensationalizing it — balancing it with stories of hope and recovery and providing resources for those who need them.

We would also encourage American Legion members to download, use and share this safe messaging fact sheet with their local media representatives and partners.






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