Steve Peck: We ALL Have to Fight to End the Veteran Suicide Epidemic

This post appeared in the Huffington Post on September 8, 2016.

A veteran sits alone in his room. There is no one else in the apartment. Absentmindedly, he holds a 45-caliber pistol in his hand. The phone rings but he doesn’t answer it. He stares out the window at a vacant lot but that’s not what his eyes are seeing. They can only see the past, of disappointments suffered, of enduring pain from friends lost, of loneliness that he knows is brought on by his self-inflicted isolation… but it is a cycle that he cannot escape, and a desolation that he can no longer endure. He slowly raises the gun to his head… and he pulls the trigger.

This scene is repeated 14 times every single day — by men and women, old and young. An additional 6 veterans each day kill themselves by other means.

As difficult as it is, it is important that we think about this. Why? Because it is important that we gain a greater understanding of what this is, where this terrible cycle starts, and what we might do to stop it. It will not be easy.

On August 30, I attended a roundtable discussion sponsored by the VA Central Office, “Preventing Suicide is Everyone’s Business” where we discussed the results of a study by the VA Office of Suicide Prevention, released in August. The results of the study are heartbreaking:

  • 20 veterans die from suicide each day. Only 6 of the 20 were users of VA services.
  • The risk for suicide is 21 percent higher among veterans when compared to the civilian population.
  • Since 2001, the rate of suicide among female veterans has increased 85.2 percent

 

  • 66 percent of these suicides are a result of firearms.

 

As we dig into the statistics it gets even worse. For every one person who tragically dies by suicide, there are nearly 60 who have survived a suicide attempt, and approximately 278 who have experienced serious thoughts about killing themselves. It is overwhelming.

As a result of this study, the VA is now fully admitting that they can’t handle this problem alone. And so they have reached out to the wider community to see how all of us can, and must, participate in stemming this tide of veteran suicides.

There have been many efforts, many of them launched and encouraged by the 30 experts in that room on August 30th. But there seemed to be an understanding that we don’t just have to do more of what we know, we have to find new ways to attack this pervasive problem.

We have to get comfortable talking about this. One myth is if you bring up the subject of suicide to someone who you think might be suicidal, it will prompt them to take action. That has proven to be absolutely false. In fact, just the opposite is true. Learning to be comfortable talking about suicide and letting people you are concerned with around you know that it’s okay to express their thoughts and desires to die, can be the beginning of a very healing supportive environment. Sometimes a word, or the smallest expression of concern can avert them from the act.

We all have to educate ourselves. There are many subtle risk factors but here are Five Signs to look for that may mean someone is in emotional pain and thinking about killing themselves: sudden Personality Change, they don’t seem like themselves; they are easily Agitated; they Withdraw, and isolate themselves; Poor Self Care, they look disheveled, drink too much, take unnecessary risks; Hopelessness, they experience feelings of worthlessness, seem overwhelmed by their circumstances and express that that they don’t think things can or will change.

September is Suicide Prevention month and U.S.VETS will be posting information and resources about the things we can do to save lives.

In Southern California, U.S.VETS has launched an effort to reach out to women veterans who are suffering from depression and are experiencing other life challenges that are prompting them to contemplate suicide. And, in partnership with the Education Development Center (EDC), we are raising money to broaden this effort, because more effort is needed.

We all suffer too much from this loss of life. And the pain caused by these lost lives does not go away. I lost my older brother Johnny to suicide 40 years ago and still cannot talk about it.

For most of us, the desire to stay alive is strong. It’s why we run when we’re afraid, and why we attack when we’re threatened. It is instinctual. It is difficult, and frightening, to imagine ourselves without that instinct, but that is the emotional terrain we have to investigate in order to help the hundreds of veterans every day who are in that dark place.

If you know anyone who seems depressed, who seems to not quite be themselves, who exhibits any of the 5 signs, please reach out to them, say something to them today. You don’t want to wake up tomorrow and say to yourself, “If only I had…”

If you are suffering from suicidal thoughts and the desire to die, or want resources to help a veteran who is suffering, use the resources below:

Veterans Crisis Line 1-800-273-8255 (press 1)

Stephen J. Peck served as a lieutenant in the 1st Marine Division in the Vietnam War, near Da Nang, from 1969 to 1970. As a documentary filmmaker 20 years after the war, he met a paraplegic Vietnam veteran with PTSD who was living in a car – with his Silver Star in the glove compartment. Struck by the experience, Mr. Peck chose to dedicate his life to serving veterans.

Mr. Peck earned his Master’s Degree in Social Work from USC. He joined U.S.VETS as Director of Community Development in 1996, and was named president and CEO in 2010. He is also the President of the California Association of Veteran Service Agencies (CAVSA) a consortium of six nonprofit veteran service providers working in partnership to address the needs of California’s veterans.

A national leader in the fight against veteran homelessness, he has been honored by the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, the USC School of Social Work, the American Legion Auxiliary, and the City of Long Beach. He was awarded a Doctorate of Humane Letters, honoris causa, by the Chicago School of Professional Psychology in 2012.