It should be shocking that 48 Maine military veterans died by suicide in 2017, according to a new report from the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs. Sadly, it is not.

It’s not surprising because, despite a dip to 30 in 2016, Maine has suffered an average of 43 such deaths a year since 2010, every one a tragedy. It’s not surprising because despite the attention the rise in veteran suicides nationwide has brought to the issue, the number has continued to increase through the last decade.

Most of all, it’s not surprising because veterans not only deal with factors unique to themselves — the aftereffects of service and a familiarity with firearms chief among them — they are also influenced by the same factors that are contributing to the rise of suicide among all Americans.

As the report states, more than 45,000 Americans died by suicide in 2017, an average of about 124 a day, up from 86 in 2005. Maine has experienced that same upward trend. Suicide is the 10th-leading cause of death in the state, and Maine’s suicide rate is well above both the national and New England rates.

The experience with veteran suicide tells us that it will be difficult to reverse that trend. As the problem escalated and drew attention, the VA took it on. But the department has been overwhelmed by the size and scope of the problem, causing a recent change in tactics.

President Donald Trump signed an executive order in March allowing other government agencies as well local governments and advocacy and social service organizations to get more involved.

“The department has adopted a comprehensive public health approach to suicide prevention, using bundled strategies that cut across various sectors — faith communities, employers, schools and health care organizations, for example — to reach veterans where they live and thrive,” VA Secretary Robert Wilkie said in the report.

In one move, the department is taking nationwide an Arizona-based program that looks at the many contributing factors of suicide and steers help toward veterans that fit the bill, taking into account not only health but also barriers to service.

In Maine, the state Bureau of Veterans’ Services is considering the use of voluntary gun safety plans to reduce suicide, a spokeswoman told WGME-TV last week. In 2017, 75 percent of veteran suicides in Maine were by firearm, as opposed to 55 percent overall, a difference that is nearly mirrored nationwide.

Earlier this year, the Legislature passed a “yellow flag” law that will allow for the mandatory confiscation of firearms belonging to people deemed by police and a medical professional to be a threat to themselves, which could help prevent Mainers from taking their own lives in a fleeting moment of crisis.

But perhaps the biggest hurdle in preventing suicide comes from the stigma that surrounds it. People in mental health crisis often do not want to come forward — and that goes double in the can-do, no-excuses culture of the military.

There are many other parts to solving this problem, including increasing access to health care, preventing access to lethal means, and building strong communities and local economies.

But first and foremost, people suffering a mental health crisis have to know they are not alone, and that they can feel comfortable coming forward.

There is help available. Veterans can call the nationwide veterans crisis hotline at 1-800-273-8255; press 1 to talk to someone. Veterans can also text to 838255 or go to: veteranscrisisline.net/chat. In Maine, the statewide crisis hotline is 1-888-568-1112. Anyone can go to suicidepreventionlifeline.org/talk-to-someone-now to chat or find more information on suicide prevention.

 


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.