Opinion: Working to combat veteran suicide

By FRANK LARKIN

Published: 07-30-2023 7:30 AM

Frank Larkin is COO of the Troops First Foundation and chair of the Warrior Call initiative.

The 988 suicide crisis hotline marked a one-year anniversary recently. Reporting shows it received 5 million contacts in its first year, further evidence of the challenges confronting Americans and the suicide crisis at hand.

Data continues to show that the issue is most pronounced among military troops and veterans, a big reason why policymakers like Sen. Jeanne Shaheen continue to push all available tools to combat the challenge. The senator’s support of Warrior Call, alongside more than 30 other U.S. senators, is a prime example of her leadership. Yet success hinges on ordinary people in New Hampshire and across the U.S. to chip away at the isolation undergirding so much of the problem.

Indeed, the numbers surrounding military-related suicides are troublesome. The Department of Veterans Affairs reports that the rate of suicide among veterans is almost double the rest of the U.S. Similarly, in New Hampshire, the veteran suicide rate outpaces other states and is significantly higher than the general population rate.

I and others who work to reverse this tragic trend believe that the numbers, as tragic as they are, do not capture the whole picture, especially those veterans who might have succumbed to opioid or other types of addictions. Lack of standardization on collection and scoring methods increases the risk of conducting research that paints a flimsy picture of the rates at which veterans commit suicide.

Nonetheless, action is needed across the board, particularly at the deck plate, grassroots level. Up to two-thirds of veterans who take their own lives have had no contact with the Department of Veterans Affairs. Moreover, research notes that loneliness ranked higher than post-traumatic stress disorder, disability or psychiatric problems in contributing significantly to the risk of developing suicidal thinking.

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Warrior Call can help as more and more people take part. Warrior Call asks Americans to make a call to a veteran or servicemember and connect them with support if they need it, because isolation often is a precursor to suicidal ideation. In addition, many veterans may be suffering from undiagnosed brain injuries that can mimic mental illness and other ailments that spur isolation.

The campaign implores those partaking to point suffering individuals to resources, such as those hosted by Vets 4 Warriors. It is not hyperbole to say that one call can save a life. Veteran advocates across the nation have experienced this reality.

The idea of Warrior Call is born out of years of touring military bases and speaking to those in service, who repeatedly tell us that conversation and a sense of togetherness is what keeps them connected and focused on a hopeful future. Warrior calls empower families and communities to make connections, before their family member or friend is in crisis.

Those in New Hampshire are keenly aware of the challenges at hand, from drug addiction to economic woes. For veterans living in the Granite State, they not only battle these issues but invisible wounds such as undiagnosed traumatic brain injury. At the same time, vets can be burdened with moral injury from their experiences. The traumas and undiagnosed traumatic brain injury can impact and erode a person’s sense of hope, leading them to disconnect from friends and family and causing some to see suicide as the only way to relieve their pain and loneliness.

All remedies have their place and deserve attention, but reducing suicides means helping right now by addressing root causes through initiatives like Warrior Call and getting brave men and women connected and steering them to services — and to hope.

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