Eighteen veterans commit suicide each day in the United States.
There are 107,000 veterans living in Montana.
Veterans are twice as likely to die from suicide as non-veterans.
Do the math and the numbers paint a tragic picture.
“I tried to commit suicide a couple of times,” said Jimmy Melton, a veteran from Helena. “But I’m better now. I had depression so bad I didn’t know what to do.”
Melton was in Billings Thursday for the three-day Montana State Conference on Mental Illness, which concludes today. Melton attended the panel discussion, “Caring for our Wounded Warriors,” which addressed the issue of suicide among veterans.
“We live in Montana where owning guns is like breathing,” said Kellie LaFave, an RN and suicide prevention coordinator for VA Montana. “It is important that we separate the bullets from the guns because the couple of seconds it takes to put them together gives us enough time to change their minds. That’s key.”
Her 30-minute presentation focused on identifying the risks of suicide as they pertain to veterans and the warning signs. LaFave also offered the veterans and care providers gathered for the standing-room-only session tips on how they might help someone contemplating suicide.
Some of the suicide risks specific to veterans include:
• Frequent deployments
• Deployments to hostile environments
• Exposure to extreme stress
• Length of deployments
• Service-related injury
• Post traumatic stress disorder
“We like to identify those at risk and build a safety net,” LaFave said.
It is difficult for those who return from war because many had gained rank and, with that, respect. They had people relying on them for their lives and when they return home they often feel they are “nobody.” They have no sense of belonging and the coping strategies they developed in theater don’t work as well at home.
At one point in the session, LaFave choked back tears as she recounted her own experience with a veteran who committed suicide. If she had been better equipped to recognize the warning signs and had been appropriately educated on how to talk with him, the catastrophic outcome might have been different, she said. Today, her mission is to equip veterans, their friends and family members and care providers with appropriate skills.
Suicide warning signs include:
• Threatening to hurt or kill themselves or someone else
• Talking and/or writing about death and trying to find ways to kill themselves
• Feeling hopeless and withdrawing from friends and family
• Acting reckless or engaging in risky activities without thinking
• Feeling rage or uncontrolled anger or seeking revenge
It is a myth, LaFave said, that people who talk about suicide won’t really do it.
“We have to make getting help as natural and routine as going to the doctor to get your cholesterol checked,” LaFave said. “It takes time and effort to change the culture.”
Pete Townsend, a non-combat Vietnam veteran, applauded LaFave’s presentation. “It’s a big step forward, reaching out to the families and veterans. It’s something I never experienced.”
Knowing all the warning signs and risks won’t make a bit of difference if you’re not willing to reach out and offer to help, LaFave said. She stressed that a few well-placed words can literally mean the difference between life and death. It can be something as simple as, “I care about you and want you to live,” or “I’m listening and will stay with you until help arrives.”
The take-away message, LaFave said, is to know the signs and symptoms of a veteran at risk and don’t be afraid to ask if you can help.
Contact Cindy Uken at firstname.lastname@example.org or 657-1287.