Suicide is a serious national public health issue, with over 45,000 Americans dying by suicide each year; nationally, 20 veterans die by suicide every day. Suicide is preventable, and we all have a role in addressing this issue.

We are morally compelled to address this crisis and it is within our capacity to change it. Change will require the full collaboration of community stakeholders. Together we can provide greater pathways to care and raise broader public awareness of veteran suicide.

This September – National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month – the Maine Bureau of Veterans’ Services and its partners, VA Maine Healthcare System and the National Alliance on Mental Illness-Maine, will be engaging in a series of public awareness initiatives and trainings aimed at educating stakeholders on prevention and safety planning. A full schedule of events can be found at maine.gov/veterans.

Maine has one of the highest rates of military service per capita, which means most Mainers know someone who has served, if they haven’t served themselves. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, the veteran suicide rate in Maine was significantly higher than the national rate in 2016. Maine veteran suicides totaled 29 in 2016, out of the total 219 suicide deaths in Maine that year.

VA data also show that Maine’s veteran suicide rate is highly elevated versus other populations:

• Maine veteran suicide rate: 24.8 per 100,000 population.

• Maine suicide rate: 20.4 per 100,000.

• Northeastern regional suicide rate (Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Vermont): 13.3 per 100,000.

• National suicide rate: 17.5 per 100,000.

Our goal is to educate all Mainers to know the signs, the symptoms and what to do. Signs may include anxiety, depression, mood swings, shame, rage, loss of interest, alcohol or drug abuse, deteriorating physical appearance, withdrawing from family and friends, expressing suicidal intent and self-destructive behavior.

If you are a veteran experiencing these symptoms or you know a veteran exhibiting these signs, free and confidential help is available 24/7, 365 days a year. You can text 838255 or call the Veterans Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255 and press 1. You can also chat online at veteranscrisisline.net/chat.

Another objective of this month-long effort is to engage stakeholders in providing outreach and resources to veterans before they reach desperation. This includes building on the momentum of the 2017 statewide symposium on veteran suicide.

At the symposium, over 150 individuals and organizations made commitments to “#BeThere For Veterans” by adding suicide prevention training to employee briefings; developing partnerships with clergy across the state of Maine; adding the Veterans Crisis Line contact information to organization newsletters, and, for those providing medical care, by asking veteran patients if they have ever contemplated suicide.

Far too many veterans have not enrolled in the VA health care system and may not realize the services that are available to them. In fact, only six out of the estimated 20 veterans a day who ended their lives were enrolled in and using VA at the time of their suicide. If you are a veteran who is not enrolled in the VA, or you know a veteran who is not enrolled, call us.

Maine has also begun implementing the state’s first veterans case management program. With the 2017 passage by the Maine Legislature of L.D. 1231, a mental health case management pilot program was created for veterans and current service members. On Jan. 1, 2018, Maine hospitals began implementing the program to identify veterans in need of mental and behavioral health care. During the first six months of the pilot, over 1,300 veterans presented to hospital emergency departments needing such care.

We will continue to work with Maine’s medical providers, community action programs and state and local leaders to improve veteran suicide prevention and intervention. While the number of veteran suicides in Maine continues to decline, there is still more that must and will be done. One veteran taking his or her own life is one too many, and we will continue to bring partners together to work toward the goal of eliminating veteran suicide altogether. While no two veterans share the same journey through crisis, there are resources available for everyone.

Please join us this month, and year-round, in helping save the lives of those who have sworn to protect ours.

 


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