Increasing suicide prevention outreach for veterans by owning the statement, “Suicide prevention is everyone’s responsibility”, is an important mission for the U.S. Veteran Affairs (VA) office. In order to combat the higher-than-national-average percentage of former servicemen and servicewomen taking their own lives, the VA Office of Mental Health and Suicide Prevention has launched a new program aimed at increasing suicide prevention outreach for high-risk veterans.
According to the VA, the suicide rate among former servicemen and servicewomen is now 22 percent higher than the national average – with female veterans taking their own lives at a rate more than double that of adult civilian women. Alarmingly, the age-adjusted rate of suicide among veterans increased 24 percent for both men and women between 1999 and 2014.
Mental health experts attribute the general higher-than-national-average rate of suicides to PTSD sustained during active service and a failure to cope with transitioning back into civilian life. The high rate of female suicides is claimed by the Service Women’s Action Network to be due to sexual harassment, sexual discrimination and rape in the military, and the resultant mental health issues.
To better support veterans at risk of suicide, the VA Office of Research and Development has launched a new program aimed at increasing suicide prevention outreach for veterans. Although only in its initial stage and limited to four hundred participants, it is hoped the cost of the program can be justified by positive outcomes so the program can be extended nationwide.
How the REACH VET Program Works
The REACH VET program – an acronym for Recovery Engagement and Coordination for Health Veterans Enhanced Treatment – analyzes veterans’ health records to identify former servicemen and women who are at a higher risk of suicide. Once identified, a mental health specialist contacts them to check on their well-being and review their treatment plan to determine whether enhanced care is needed.
To identify which veterans will be included in the initial study group, the VA Office of Research and Development is using a predictive model that calculates the risk of suicide, hospitalization, illness, or other adverse outcome based on previous cases reported by the Veterans Healthcare Administration (VHA) Healthcare System. Outreach will continue until 2019, after which an evaluation of the program will be conducted.
One criticism of the REACH VET program is that only veterans under the care of the VHA Healthcare System will be eligible to take part in the initial study. Currently, there are 21.8 million veterans in the US and only 9 million registered with the VHA. The discrepancy is attributable to commonly-believed “myths” about who is eligible for post-service care.
VHA Healthcare Eligibility and Further Help
The Department of Veterans Affairs is concerned many former servicemen and servicewomen fail to register with the VHA Healthcare System because they believe they must have served in a combat zone, suffered a service-related injury or be below a certain income in order to be eligible for the service.
Why are the Majority of Suicide Victims outside the VHA Healthcare System?
According to the Census Bureau, there were 21.8 million veterans in the United States in 2014. Not all suffer mental health issues or have difficulty transitioning back into civilian life, but – of those that do – there is a common misconception that servicemen and women have to have a service-connected disability rating before being able to take advantage of the VHA healthcare system.
Other eligibility myths include veterans must have served in combat or in a war zone to qualify for the VHA healthcare system, and that those with a high net worth will be excluded from the system. Former servicemen and women can find out if they qualify for the VHA healthcare system by completing a short online questionnaire on the VA website.
Tools to Support At-Risk Veterans
Although a worthwhile program, REACH VET is limited in its scope. By only enrolling 400 veterans, the program is likely to miss many former servicemen and women at high risk of suicide. These veterans often belong to local support groups or receive help from charitable organizations that do not have the same level of resources as a government-funded program. Fortunately, tools exist that can help support groups and charitable organizations reduce suicides among veterans.
These tools consist of smartphone apps veterans can download and invite family, friends and others they trust to be a guardian. Typically, trusted members include support group councilors or helpline numbers they can contact with just a tap on a screen whenever they feel depressed, anxious or suicidal. Having the app easily accessible on the home screen of their smartphones encourages veterans to use the app, and it is a much quicker way to seek help than looking up the number of a helpline.
Other benefits of the smartphone apps include:
- A safety timer that counts down the minutes to a veteran’s anticipated arrival at their destination. If the countdown timer reaches zero, Guardians are alerted to their non-arrival – lateness being a symptom of an underlying mood disorder such as depression.
- A personal safety profile on which veterans can note any mental health issues they suffer from. This information is displayed to first responders attending an emergency, and can be used to organize appropriate mental health treatment if required.
- Emergency communication with 911 so that veterans can call for emergency medical assistance if a friend is attempting suicide. If the friend has also completed a Smart911 personal safety profile, 911 dispatchers will be able to advise medical personnel of the circumstances.
Other ways to help
9-1-1 call centers in regions hit hard by high veteran suicide rates can also support the VA’s prevention mission by adding text-to-911 capabilities, which allows 9-1-1 dispatchers to conduct third-party welfare checks and has helped to prevent suicides in the past. Other resources exist to also further support suicide prevention such as the Veterans Crisis Line, which provides confidential support by dialing 800-273-8255 and pressing 1. The VA also offers an online chat feature on the Veterans Crisis Line website and a mobile chat feature, by texting 838255 for help by SMS.