HUNTSVILLE, Ala. -- Veterans die by suicide at a substantially higher rate than the general population. That is truer in Alabama, with a suicide rate for veterans that exceeds national figures.
The first thing to know, if you are considering suicide, or are concerned that a loved one is considering suicide, you're urged to call:
The Veterans Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255, and Press 1. There are trained counselors and resources immediately available.
With the state ranking second nationally in this terrible category, the Alabama Legislature and the Alabama Department of Veterans Affairs have authorized a new study committee to examine the problem and make recommendations on what Alabama can do to help.
Dr. John Campbell, director of mental health Birmingham VA told WHNT News 19, "The veteran population experiences about 20 percent higher suicide rates than the civilian population just in general. And actually, the South and Alabama, in particular, has a higher veteran rate than even the rest of the country."
Paulette Risher, president and CEO of Huntsville-based Still Serving Veterans and a retired. U.S. Army Major General, will lead the task force. Risher, a psychologist, said the problem isn't confined to younger veterans recently returned from war and it's not strictly tied to post-traumatic stress disorder, PTSD.
Experts say veterans face a number of pressures that can lead them to consider suicide and there are ways to help:
Grief and regret:
Vietnam-era veterans are currently dying by suicide in greater numbers than any other age group.
Keith Poole, president of Centurion Witness Ministries, points out that more Vietnam veterans have died by suicide than the number who died in the Vietnam war. Risher said those older veterans now leaving the workforce, dealing with their own illnesses and possibly the illness or loss of a spouse and they, for the first time in decades, have time to look back at the war experiences.
"You come home to a place where you’re not appreciated, who you going to share it with? There wasn’t programs in place like there are now," Poole said. "And, for decades, they’ve been carrying this pain and suffering and burdens with them."
For many veterans the pain they're facing isn't just physical or psychological, there's a moral struggle as well, Risher said. They’ve affected by what they’ve seen, she said, or in some cases, what they were required to do.
"There’s kind of a moral injury part of this, they’re doing things that are counter to who they are as a person," she said.
Then the veterans are home, expected to pick up a daily routine, but it's not that simple. "Just the everyday trauma of life, on top of the moral injury, that is an ugly combination," Risher said. "And I think that’s what drives people sometimes to hopelessness."
Dr. Robert Campbell, chief of mental health for the Birmingham VA, said there are a number of warnings that can signal a veteran is considering suicide, including:
- Increasingly-risky behavior involving drugs or alcohol
- Giving away treasured possessions
- Looking for a new home for a pet
- Talk of death or suicide
Campbell said those conversations about death, while difficult, can be an opportunity to help.
"Bringing up that conversation or even talking directly about suicide, that doesn’t increase suicide risk," Campbell said. "So that’s important for people to know, it’s OK to kind of directly talk about it."
Increasingly avoiding human contact can be a suicide warning sign or an indication a veteran is struggling with PTSD. In either case, Poole, warns isolation is dangerous. He believes the struggle -- mental, emotional, physical -- is also taking place on a spiritual plane. And, when someone is isolated, Poole said, over time the only voice they're hearing is negative, reliving regrets and pain and blame and shame. He said it's vital to communicate to an isolated veteran they're valued and cared for and it's important to say those things to them, to counteract the weight of isolation.
"Being isolated is dangerous," Poole said. "Isolation is a tool that the enemy uses and it’s true in physical warfare also that you use isolation to take hope away from you."
You can help:
If someone seems to be struggling, the former soldiers and experts say, ask what's going on.
"It's OK to ask them, ‘Hey, have you ever, are you thinking about hurting yourself?’ Even if they say ‘No,’ if you truly know that person, you’re going to know if that’s a real response or not," Poole said.
Campbell said a veteran who is at risk for suicide will be seen the same day by the VA.
Former soldiers Risher and Poole said the burdens many veterans carry can ultimately be unbearable. But with help, and hope, that can change.
"If you’ve ever carried a heavy, heavy rucksack, and I mean heavy, and you’re carrying that thing, and it is, it ain’t getting any better, when you drop that rucksack, there’s almost nothing in this world that feels better than that," Poole said.
Risher said it's critical to help a loved one find a way to release that burden, before it's too late.
"You have to have some way to honor that experience and be able to lay it down."
Veterans Crisis Line
1 800 273 8255 – Press 1
US Department of Veterans Affairs
Moving Forward Mobile App
Zero Suicide App
Start the Conversation
VA Alabama Resources
Job Assistance for Veterans
Centurion Witness Ministries