USA — Outreach ‘Essential’ to Suicide Prevention, Official Says

WASHINGTON — Pre­vent­ing sui­cide among ser­vice­mem­bers and vet­er­ans calls for com­pre­hen­sive edu­ca­tion and com­mu­ni­ca­tion, the direc­tor of the Defense Cen­ters of Excel­lence for Psy­cho­log­i­cal Health and Trau­mat­ic Brain Injury said here today.

Tes­ti­fy­ing before the House Vet­er­ans Affairs Com­mit­tee, Army Col. Robert W. Saum said the Defense Department’s approach to sui­cide pre­ven­tion is “mul­ti-pronged,” and out­reach to troops, vet­er­ans and their fam­i­lies is essen­tial.

“[The depart­ment] has devel­oped many resources and tools for ser­vice­mem­bers, vet­er­ans and fam­i­lies,” Saum said in his writ­ten state­ment. “How­ev­er, we real­ize uti­liza­tion of these resources is depen­dent upon pre­ven­tion edu­ca­tion and com­mu­ni­ca­tion about their exis­tence.”

Although psy­cho­log­i­cal treat­ment and coun­sel­ing are avail­able for those on the brink of sui­cide, he said, inter­ven­tion pro­grams also are in place to address stres­sors that may lead to sui­cide. Such pro­grams include coun­sel­ing for sub­stance abuse and for rela­tion­ship, legal, work and finan­cial issues, the colonel explained.

Saum stressed the impor­tance of Defense Depart­ment col­lab­o­ra­tion with the Vet­er­ans Affairs Depart­ment and pri­vate-sec­tor orga­ni­za­tions. Saum’s orga­ni­za­tion serves as a cen­tral point of coor­di­na­tion for these groups, he said.

“Con­tin­ued col­lab­o­ra­tion and coor­di­na­tion with [VA] and oth­er fed­er­al, pri­vate and aca­d­e­m­ic orga­ni­za­tions is the key to ensur­ing we reach our mil­i­tary com­mu­ni­ty in the most mean­ing­ful way,” he said. “We col­lab­o­rate with the VA on many out­reach ini­tia­tives to ensure that ser­vice­mem­bers, vet­er­ans and their fam­i­lies receive resources and access to ser­vices on a con­tin­ued and con­sis­tent basis.

“[The cen­ter] works to iden­ti­fy best prac­tices and dis­sem­i­nates prac­ti­cal resources to mil­i­tary com­mu­ni­ties,” he added.

Saum not­ed the center’s work with VA to coor­di­nate resources and infor­ma­tion with the Nation­al Sui­cide Pre­ven­tion Life­line: 1–800-273-TALK. One of the more recent improve­ments, he said, was devel­op­ing an option for those con­cerned about a loved one or friend who may be sui­ci­dal.

Address­ing the stig­ma issue also is impor­tant to the department’s out­reach ini­tia­tives, he said.

“Stig­ma is a tox­ic threat to our ser­vice­mem­bers, vet­er­ans and fam­i­lies receiv­ing the care they need,” Saum said. “We rec­og­nize that out­reach is essen­tial for com­bat­ing stig­ma, encour­ag­ing help-seek­ing behav­iors and pro­mot­ing aware­ness of resources.”

Sui­cide among vet­er­ans and ser­vice­mem­bers has been on the rise for the past five years, a “deeply con­cern­ing” fact for the depart­ments, Dr. Robert Jesse, prin­ci­pal deputy under­sec­re­tary for health with VA’s Vet­er­ans Health Admin­is­tra­tion, told the pan­el. At least 18 vet­er­an deaths each day are attrib­uted to sui­cide, he said, and about 50 per­cent of sui­cides among VA health care users are of patients diag­nosed with men­tal ill­ness.

“These are stag­ger­ing num­bers, and the data fails to reveal the true cost of sui­cide among vet­er­ans,” Jesse said in his sub­mit­ted remarks. How­ev­er, he added, VA is in the fore­front of sui­cide pre­ven­tion in the nation, not­ing sev­er­al ini­tia­tives launched by the depart­ment.

VA has sui­cide pre­ven­tion coor­di­na­tors at each VA med­ical cen­ter, he said, and there has been sig­nif­i­cant expan­sion of ser­vices and work to alle­vi­ate the stig­ma of seek­ing help. Vet­er­ans Affairs sui­cide pre­ven­tion coor­di­na­tors helped to ini­ti­ate more than 600 infor­ma­tion­al and out­reach pro­grams in Feb­ru­ary, he said, result­ing in more than 1,500 vet­er­ans being added to VA’s “high risk list.” More than 90 per­cent of those vet­er­ans com­plet­ed safe­ty plans, he said.

Also, VA’s aggres­sive approach to adver­tis­ing infor­ma­tion through pub­lic ser­vice announce­ments and oth­er means, such as bill­boards has helped, he said. Adver­tise­ments on bus­es and trains have result­ed in a “sig­nif­i­cant increase” to calls to the hot­line, he said, and social-net­work mar­ket­ing is the next step.

Sta­tis­tics show that vet­er­an sui­cides are down, and VA and the Defense Depart­ment efforts are work­ing, he said. About 71 per­cent of vet­er­ans return­ing from deploy­ment and screened for men­tal health issues in 2009 con­tact­ed VA for ser­vices, he said.

Ulti­mate­ly, he added, vet­er­ans who reach out to VA are more like­ly to need care and are found to be at a high­er risk of sui­cide. Get­ting vet­er­ans to step for­ward is the key, he not­ed.

VA has tak­en a num­ber of steps to pro­vide com­pre­hen­sive sui­cide pre­ven­tion ser­vices, and the data indi­cate our efforts are suc­ceed­ing,” Jesse said. “But our mis­sion will not be ful­ly achieved until every vet­er­an con­tem­plat­ing sui­cide is able to secure the ser­vices he or she needs.”

U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs)