New Report: Suicide 21 Percent Greater Risk For Veterans

veteran_suicide_crisisline_graphicAfter releasing a summary in early July, the Department of Veterans Affairs today released its  full report on veteran suicides.

The Suicide Among Veterans and Other Americans 2001-2014 is a comprehensive analysis that looked at more than 55 million veterans’ records  from 1979 to 2014 from every state in the nation.

Some key findings from this year’s report include:
  • In 2014, an average of 20 veterans died by suicide each day. Six of the 20 were users of the VA Health services.
  • In 2014, veterans accounted for 18 percent of all adult deaths by suicide in the U.S. but only make up 8.5 percent of the population age 18 or older.
  • In 2014, about 67 percent of all suicides by veterans a firearm was used.
  • Approximately 65 percent of all veterans who died from suicide in 2014 were 50 years of age or older.
  • Since 2001, U.S. adult civilian suicides increased 23 percent, while Veteran suicides increased 32 percent in the same time period. After controlling for age and gender, this makes the risk of suicide 21 percent greater for Veterans.

A fact sheet is available and the VA is taking several measures to increase prevention programs and access to care and the Veterans Crisis Line: 800-273-8255.

 

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A Memorial Day For Military, Veterans Killed By Suicide

Ellsworth Tony Williams veterans counseling veterans

Ellsworth “Tony” Williams, founder and CEO of Veterans Counseling Veterans.

The nation will remember those killed while serving their country on Memorial Day in just over a week. But a local group called Veterans Counseling Veterans wants people to think about another kind of Memorial Day – one honoring those who served in uniform and died by suicide — and is planning such as service this Sunday in Tampa at American Legion Post 5.

The Veterans Counseling Veterans memorial service is an example of the many different efforts to eliminate the stigma of suicide and improve veteran suicide prevention from Congress to local counselors.

One of the challenges some advocates say they face is a number: 22. A 2012 VA report estimated 22 vets a day die by suicide, and it’s often quoted in media reports. But that data is questionable because it didn’t include all 50 states. And it’s mistakenly associated with only Post 9-11 veterans. Continue reading

Veteran Suicide: A Look Into the Numbers

veteran_suicide_crisisline_graphicThere’s a statistic on veteran suicide that is repeated often: VA officials say an average of 22 veterans commit suicide every day. But what is not widely known about that statistic is that a majority of veterans committing suicide are age 50 or older and did not serve in combat.

For our series Off the Base, WUSF reporter Bobbie O’Brien talked with Dr. Larry Schonfeld,  a professor in the Department of Mental Health Law and Policy at the University of South Florida’s Florida Mental Health Institute.

Schonfeld is a psychologist who specializes in research on veterans and aging and knows it can be difficult to gather  data on veteran suicide.

“I think we’re still trying to understand what the statistics mean and where they’re coming from,” Schonfeld said. “I don’t know what they’ve done as to age distribution but in the general population and the veteran population the older white male becomes the higher risk population for committing suicide.”

But he said just because they’re not the majority, suicide among younger veterans is a growing concern.

“We’ have younger people committing suicide and this country has got to do something for those who have served our country so well,” Schonfeld said.

He said it’s important to find the reasons behind veteran suicide so effective treatment and prevention programs can be developed. Yet, Schonfeld said he and other researchers in academia are challenged to find Post 9-11 veterans willing to participate in research studies.

What is certain, according to Schonfeld and others, the need for mental health services by Post 9-11 veterans will only grow over the coming decades.

“I think that’s absolutely certain that the wave,” Schonfeld said. “Because of the age of the population, if they don’t get the help now, we’re going to be seeing it later. It’s in a sense a time bomb in itself.”

Information on VA Suicide Prevention including warning signs and links to resources are on the Crisis Line website. If you need immediate help as a veteran, a family member or friend, call 1-800-273-8255 and Press 1 to talk to someone.

2015 the Year to End Vet Homelessness & Restore VA Trust ?

Bob McDonald’s first visit as VA Secretary was to the Phoenix VAMC where he met with veterans and employees like Medical Support Assistant Michael Logie. He also visited the Las Vegas VAMC during the trip. Photo courtesy of the VA blog Vantage Point

Bob McDonald’s first visit as VA Secretary was to the Phoenix VAMC where he met with veterans and employees like Medical Support Assistant Michael Logie. He also visited the Las Vegas VAMC during the trip. Photo courtesy of the VA blog Vantage Point

The year 2015 could bring about some momentous changes for veterans.

First, it is the year that the Department of Veterans Affairs set as the deadline for ending veteran homelessness according to a 5-year plan adopted in 2009.

“As that deadline fast approaches, I’m pleased to report that the VA has succeeded in reducing veteran homelessness by approximately 33 percent,” said US Rep. Jeff Miller (R-FL).

Miller, as chairman of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, presided over the final committee hearing of the 113th Congress that examined the effectiveness of VA homeless prevention programs.

Miller is troubled by a VA Inspector General’s audit issued December 3, 2014 that found that the VA National Call Center for Homeless Veterans failed to help more than 40,000 callers.

These missed opportunities occurred due to lapses in the Call Center’s management and oversight. The Call Center relied on answering machine technology, instead of counselors, to ensure continuous telephone coverage. (page 3)

“I think you’ll agree this is unacceptable for any government program, but particularly a population that’s as vulnerable as this one is – a population that for some the ability to even make a phone call is a logistical challenge,” Miller stated during the opening committee hearing.

crisis_line_veteransMiller also questioned the need for the roughly 20 different VA programs aimed at getting veterans off the street and into housing.

The executive director of the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, Baylee Crone, offered an explanation for the range of veterans homeless programs.

“The full picture is complicated,” Crone testified before the committee. “Ending veteran homelessness starts with the veteran and people are complicated. Some individuals with complex needs profiles will be served by several programs. This does not mean that the services are being duplicated but rather the organizations and programs are working together to address specific barriers to permanent housing.”

U.S. Rep. Jeff Miller (FL-R) on the left, listens to new VA Secretary Bob McDonald, on the right, during their visit to Tampa's James A. Haley VA Polytrauma Center on Oct. 1, 2014.

U.S. Rep. Jeff Miller (FL-R) on the left, listens to new VA Secretary Bob McDonald, on the right, during their visit to Tampa’s James A. Haley VA Polytrauma Center on Oct. 1, 2014.

Veteran suicide is another topic tackled by the House of Representatives which passed the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act in early December.

The bipartisan legislation increased veteran access to mental health care while requiring annual reviews of program effectiveness.

But the bill was killed in the Senate by retiring, US Sen. Tom Coburn, a Republican from Oklahoma.

Veteran organizations are hoping the bill will reemerge in 2015.

And this is also the year when new VA Secretary Bob McDonald hopes to regain the trust of veterans after the crisis of confidence over delayed health care and backlogged claims at several VA facilities.

A January 1st VA blog posted this article, “21 Reasons Why the VA Is Headed in the Right Direction,” with links to videos and documents detailing McDonald’s reorganization plans.

Seeking Solutions to Veteran Suicide

crisis_line_veteransVeteran suicide is a real and present problem in the community. The Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that on average 22 veterans die by suicide every day.

That’s a straightforward statistic for a very complex problem.

Calling it a growing and troublesome trend, U.S. Representative Kathy Castor of Tampa organized a roundtable to discuss what is being done in the Tampa Bay area to prevent veteran suicide.

“The suicide rate among veterans age 18-24 has skyrocketed 70 percent during the past three years,” Castor told a gathering of about 50 mental health experts, researchers and veteran advocates at James A. Haley VA Hospital.

One thing Castor said she learned is that the group needed to be broadened to include active-duty military to help fight the stigma associated with asking for help.

Depression, financial debt, domestic disputes, a traumatic combat experience – any number of problems can contribute to a veteran feeling that suicide is the only way out.

Carmen Genovese, a licensed professional counselor with the Haley Suicide Prevention Team, said studies have shown that only 10 percent of veterans who commit suicide have been in combat and only 40 percent had deployed.

“The biggest problem I would say that keeps veterans from calling the Crisis Line is that they think they have to be suicidal or homicidal to call,” Genovese said. “That’s why they changed the name a few years ago.”

Genovese was among the mental health experts who attended the roundtable. Prior to coming to Haley, he worked at the Veterans Crisis Line in upper New York state.

Another item Castor gathered from the discussion is that the crisis line is for families and friends trying to get help for a troubled veteran.

“Families have got to understand where they can turn and it may not be a suicide. But it might be some economic challenge or a health challenge and there are folks who can assist,” Castor said.

She called on the attendees to share ideas and stay connected so they can maximize efforts to let veterans, active-duty military and their families where to get help.

Listen to a story from November 2013 featuring the HBO documentary that went behind the scenes at the Veterans Crisis Line and talked with the responders who field the calls for help.

A Veteran’s Voice: It’s Okay to Talk About Suicide

One of the groups from the TAPS Good Grief Camp in St. Pete Beach, FL for 170 children who a military service member or recent veteran who died by suicide.

One of the groups from the TAPS Good Grief Camp in St. Pete Beach, FL for 170 children who a military service member or recent veteran who died by suicide.

By Kiersten Downs

WUSF Veterans Coming Home Outreach Coordinator

Over time, the sharp and jagged pieces of a broken green bottle have been transformed into a smooth and beautiful beach gem that we call sea glass. While sitting in a circle with fellow mentors and mentees, we were asked by our group leader what was special about the sea glass.

My nine-year-old mentee raised her little hand and in a sweet and shaky voice said, “that it changed over time”.

This was the theme for the National Military Suicide Survivor Seminar and Good Grief Camp for Young Survivors held this past weekend in St. Pete Beach, Florida by the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS).

For those who are unfamiliar with the work of this incredible organization, TAPS provides immediate and long-term emotional help, hope, and healing to all who are grieving the death of a loved one in military service to America. The 170 children who participated in the Good Grief Camp have lost a military loved one to suicide.

I am not alone in saying that participating in the Good Grief Camp, as a mentor was one of the most powerful volunteer efforts I have ever experienced.

A resounding theme repeated throughout the weekend that needs to be replicated not just at a suicide seminar but on our military bases is that “suicide is talked about here”. The existing stigma surrounding suicide gravely impacts those who have lost a loved one and silence on the subject also silences the living memories of those who have died, complicating grief even further.

We understand that not everyone is at the point where they can talk openly about what brought them to the camp, but by stating that “suicide is talked about here” we are letting them know that this is a safe place where they can honor the memories of their loved ones with people who care and often times share similar life experiences.

What I witnessed was a community of people coming together to help heal open wounds, some new and some long-standing. We painted together, we talked together, we cried together. We watched as kids were allowed to be kids.

My mentee left footprints on my heart and taught me one of the most important lessons of all time. On Sunday afternoon, after we watched as the ocean waves washed away the words that we drew in the sand – “bad thoughts” and “nightmares” – I asked her what she was going to take home from camp. Her reply was, “that things change with time and it’s okay to talk about it.”

For more information go to www.taps.org. If you or a loved one are in crisis, Veterans and their loved ones can call 1-800-273-8255 and Press 1chat online, or send a text.

Military Suicide Survivors Gather at St. Pete Beach

Kim Ruoco helped start the TAPS Military Suicide Survivor program after her husband, Marine Maj. John Ruoco, killed himself on Super Bowl Sunday 2005.

Kim Ruoco helped start the TAPS Military Suicide Survivor program after her husband, Marine Maj. John Ruoco, killed himself on Super Bowl Sunday 2005.

This weekend marks the 6th annual National Military Suicide Survivors Seminar and Good Grief Camp for Young Survivors organized by TAPS, the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors. About 500 adults and 170 children will participate in workshops, art therapy, and outdoor activities learning skills to cope with the suicide of a loved one who served in the military.

The U.S. military passed a tragic milestone in 2012:  more active-duty service members died by suicide, than in combat.

And while military families grieve over a loved one killed in combat, families who have a loved one return from the battlefield only to die by suicide have to deal with even more complex feelings like anger and guilt.

And there was very little help or support for family survivors of military suicide when it hit Kim Ruoco’s family in February 2005.

After more than a decade of service, her husband, U.S. Marine Corps Maj. John Ruoco, died by suicide. It turned Kim into an advocate.

“One of reasons I really started talking about my husband’s death was a fear that the way he died would wipe out the way he lived,” she said. “He had worked so hard to get to be who he was and that was part of the reason why he didn’t get help because he feared losing that.”

It is important to her that people know her husband: a man eager to serve his country who joined the Marine Corps right out of college. He wanted to be in the infantry but the Corps convinced him to train as a helicopter pilot because of his high test scores. He played rugby, loved football and Halloween was his favorite holiday.

The Ruoco Family, Kim, John and their two sons, Billy and Joey. Courtesy of Kim Ruoco, TAPS.

The Ruoco Family, Kim, John and their two sons, Billy and Joey. Courtesy of Kim Ruoco, TAPS.

Kim said John had his first major depression after losing several Marines in training accidents in the 1990s when they were stationed in North Carolina. But back then, she said, he didn’t let people know for fear it would hurt his career as a Marine helicopter pilot.

“His identity as a pilot was everything,” she said. They did confide in one of his trusted leaders who told them “it happens to everybody … take a break and push through it.”

And Major Ruoco ‘pushed through it,’ successfully, until Super Bowl Sunday night in 2005.

Kim was in Massachusetts with their two sons and John was in California with his Marine unit. When they talked on the phone, she knew he was having trouble, he hadn’t watched the game, wasn’t eating or sleeping. He promised to get help.

She knew asking for help would be harder for him than going to war. So that night, she boarded a plane to be with him when he went to the base clinic the next day.

“By the time I got there he had already killed himself. He had killed himself a few hours after he’d hung up the phone,” Kim said. “I learned really quickly that there’s a lot of stigma around suicide and that people don’t have really good answers about how to recover and how to have a healthy grief process after suicide.”

Her biggest concern was what do I tell their sons, Joey, 10, and Billy, 8.

“At the time, I thought, how do you tell two little kids that their dad went to a combat zone and went to war, made it back safely, and then took his own life?” Kim said.

A trauma specialist advised her to tell her boys their father died in an accident. So that’s what she did, not trusting her own instincts at that time. She said not trusting yourself is a common experience of many suicide survivors.

But two weeks later, she found out that her son was blaming himself for his dad’s “accident.”

“He said mom I think I killed Dad. I said what do you mean honey?” Kim said. “He said, ‘When Dad was home for Christmas we were eating nachos and I said, ‘Can we salt the nachos Dad?’ And he said, ‘No because too much salt is not good for your heart.’ And when Dad wasn’t looking, I salted them. So, he must have had a heart attack and that’s why he had an accident.”

At that moment, Kim said, she and her sons started over. She told them that their father was really sick, that he had war injuries and his brain wasn’t working the way it should and he killed himself.

TAPS_LOGOKim found a brochure for the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, TAPS, a non-profit organization that offers support to all grieving the death of a loved one serving in the Armed Forces. It is a peer-based support group for adults and provides military mentors for children.

Nine years ago, TAPS did not have a specific program for survivors of military suicide. So, Kim had to build her own support group.

But, she said TAPS did provide military mentors for her boys. Her older son, Joey, was paired with an Airman who had a sense of humor and personality similar to her husband.

A Marine pilot, who flew 70 combat missions with her husband in Iraq, mentored her younger son, Billy, and has kept in touch even as both sons have gone off to college.

Kim was invited to help TAPS create a support program for military suicide survivors. She’s now manager for Suicide Outreach and Education programs at TAPS.

“We need to start talking about mental illness,” Kim said. “Ninety percent of these guys are suffering from severe mental illness that they’ve battled for years and it’s treatable.”

She said TAPS is working with the Department of Defense, the VA and the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration, SAMHSA, to develop a tool kit to share with local health providers, emergency room physicians and primary doctors on how to recognize and deal with military members and veterans at risk of suicide.

For more information go to www.taps.org . If you or a loved one are in crisis, Veterans and their loved ones can call 1-800-273-8255 and Press 1, chat online, or send a text message to 838255 to receive confidential support 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year.

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