(NewsNation) — U.S. veterans are at an increased risk of suicide compared to other people — faced with the twin challenges of trauma from their time as service members and hurdles in their ability to access care once they’re home. But community groups and veteran organizations are creating a variety of solutions to intervene.
The statistics are stark.
Military veterans are 1.5 times more likely to die by suicide than their non-veteran counterparts, according to the American Psychological Association, and suicide remains the second leading cause of death for veterans under the age of 45.
If you or someone you know needs help, resources or someone to talk to, you can find it at the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline website or by calling 988, and pressing 1 for veterans. People are available to talk to 24/7.
For more information on resources available to veterans and the groups that participated in NewsNation’s coverage, click here.
As a result, some states recognize September 22 as Veteran Suicide Awareness Day — a reference to the estimated 22 veterans who take their lives each day. With suicide being such a complex issue, various groups have emerged to help veterans and their loved ones learn how to cope, heal and recognize warning signs.
Candice Kreis first began navigating veteran health and mental health care systems in 2016 with her Vietnam veteran father.
Today, she helps veterans across Wisconsin navigate the system as vice president of Journey to the Light Ministries and a military counselor at Church Health Services. Her organizations help connect veterans with the people trying to help, building trust with providers in a way a simple referral may not.
“Sometimes making that phone call, (veterans) are just like, ‘I’ll do it’ and it gets put on the shelf,” Kreis said. “It’s about creating that warm transfer, creating that rapport with that client and walking with them, being their advocate.”
Veteran suicide deaths rose more than 13% from 2001 to 2018, then fell nearly 10% by 2020, according to the most recent data available from the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs. But statistics mean little to those who’ve lost loved ones.
In Carthage, New York, the members of VFW Post 7227 recently lost one of their own.
“It took everyone by surprise because we were doing what we thought were the right things within the community,” said Janice Gravely, the post’s chaplain and member of the North County Veteran and Service Member Suicide Prevention Coalition. “And sometimes you just don’t know what that breaking point is.”
There’s no single answer — physical illness, mental health, readjusting to civilian life, and challenges in accessing care are just a few of the compounding issues they face
Mental health takes its toll— 31% of service members suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depending on the branch. More than one in 10 U.S. veterans have been diagnosed with a substance abuse disorder.
“I was drafted in 1970 and plucked out of my life like many of us…” said Ralph Bozella, a Vietnam combat veteran and commander of American Legion Post 32 in Longmont, Colorado. “Five months later you’re in a battle. It’s a life-changing thing.”
For Bozella, like many others, returning home was its own challenge.
“Coming back from all that was the toughest part of my life,” he said. “I had PTSD, I felt outcast.”
Veterans may not want to ask tough questions of one another, said Jessica Del Rio, Veteran Suicide Prevention Program manager with the Texas Veterans Commission.
“For example, I thought every veteran was able to get benefits from the VA and they were able to get help through the VA and all these other things, and I’m finding out that’s actually not true,” Del Rio said.
Recognizing a need to help veterans readjust to civilian life, the American Legion launched a “comradeship campaign” in March 2019 to encourage posts to reach out to local veterans and ask what they needed from the organization.
The program continued through the pandemic as veterans grew increasingly isolated, and now posts throughout the country are using what has since developed into the Buddy Check Program.
“We’re not counselors, so we’re not professional people but we want to stay in touch with each other,” said Bozella, who previously served as the chairman of the American Legion National Veterans Affairs and Rehabilitation Commission.
Through the program, Buddy Check teams can contact local veterans and their families by phone, email, text messages and personal visits to make sure their needs are being met.
Building on that, the Legion has also launched its Be The One campaign, a nationwide initiative to destigmatize the discussion.
Dr. Blake Harris Clinical Forensic Psychologist deals with rural counties where Veterans Affairs facilities are scarce.
He works with county-level organizations, local VFWs, and American Legions to spot signs of suicide and respond appropriately.
“We know people in the military may be more likely to go to a chaplain than they would be to a mental health professional,” Harris said. “So (we’re) leaning into all of those opportunities and really trying to make sure that there is no wrong door.”
Knowing what to look for is important, too, Bozella said. Not everyone is upfront with their struggles and sometimes “everything’s really tough” can be a person’s cry for help. Breakups, divorce, job loss, depression, behavioral changes, and giving things away can all be red flags, he said.