Opinion: Combating veteran suicide in NH

Published: 8/30/2022 6:03:52 AM
Modified: 8/30/2022 6:00:12 AM

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

New Hampshire-based veterans and service members disconnected from peers, friends, family and support systems and on the edge of suicide now can dial 988 to reach the Veterans Crisis Line for immediate help.

“The new shorter number directly addresses the need for ease of access and clarity in times of crisis, both for veterans and non-veterans alike,” said Tamara Campbell, acting executive director for the Office of Mental Health and Suicide Prevention for the Department of Veterans Affairs.

The numbers surrounding military-related suicides are troublesome no matter whether in the Granite State or other locale. The Department of Veterans Affairs reports that across the country 6,261 veterans took their own lives in 2019 — the most recent data available. 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 opioids or other types of addictions.

Nonetheless, action is needed across the board, particularly at the deck plate, grassroots level. A key part of this is reducing isolation, a major corollary with suicide, particularly since the onset of the COVID pandemic in 2020.

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.

This is why leaders are embracing the “Warrior Call” initiative, in which people are encouraged to connect with a veteran or service member, to create greater connectivity through simple yet meaningful action.

At the forefront of progress is Sen. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, who is leading the charge in Congress to establish the Sunday after Veterans Day as National Warrior Call Day.

The campaign’s motto calls on Americans, but especially those who have worn or are wearing the uniform, to make a call, take a call and be honest. Pick up the phone or schedule a face-to-face and ask how a service member or veteran is doing. And, if needed, point this individual to resources, such as those hosted by Vets 4 Warriors. It may not be an easy conversation, but it could save a life.

The idea 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.

Beyond Congress, the effort was recently endorsed by seven living Veterans Affairs Secretaries. And more recently, a group of public policy organizations wrote in support of the congressional action led by Sen. Shaheen. A broad swath of veteran groups will soon voice their support too. 

The past few years have been uniquely challenging for New Hampshire veterans and those countrywide. Invisible wounds linked to an underlying and undiagnosed traumatic brain injury can mirror many mental health conditions. 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 warriors connected and steering them to services, and to hope. Kudos to Sen. Shaheen for her leadership in recognizing this reality.

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