A group of Maine organizations are teaming up in an effort to reduce the state’s higher-than-average rate of suicide by veterans.

The Maine Bureau of Veterans’ Services announced in September, which was Suicide Prevention and Awareness Month, the formation of a task force promoting firearms and medication safety for those working through mental health issues.

The Maine Safer Homes Taskforce comprises representatives from the bureau, Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, the Veterans of Foreign Wars Department of Maine, the Maine Center for Disease Control & Prevention, the VA Maine Healthcare System and Maine Vet Centers.

Retired Army National Guard Sgt. George O’Keefe, 39, of Winthrop, said firearm safety is a key to reducing suicide rates, along with destigmatizing treatment, therapy and medication. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

Retired Army National Guard Sgt. George O’Keefe, 39, of Winthrop, said the task force was a positive step toward veteran suicide prevention. He said firearm safety was key to reducing suicide rates, along with destigmatizing treatment, therapy and medication.

O’Keefe said that he has seen statistics to show that access to firearms increases the likelihood of a person dying by suicide and that measures to reduce impulses are also effective. In his opinion, the largest contributing factor to veteran suicide is the isolation veterans often feel when returning to the civilian population.

“My brothers and sister have suffered both during and after military service,” he said. “They leave their community and they go away for four years. When they get back, you can’t just pick up where you left off.”

According to 2017 data, 48 Maine veterans died by suicide, with 75% being completed by firearm. That rate is higher than the national rate, which is about 51%. Maine’s veteran suicide rate, 42.1 per 100,000 people, is also higher than the Northeast states average of 24.3 per 100,000 people, and the national average of 31 per 100,000 people.

Tracy Charette, a Suicide Prevention Coordinator for the Maine VA, called suicide a “national public health issue.” She said the risk for suicide is elevated for veterans.

In 2017, Charette said, an average of 17 veterans died by suicide every 24 hours, with about 70% being completed by a firearm for male veterans and 43.2% for female veterans.

“It is important to stress that suicide is a complex issue with no single cause; however, there are steps that can be taken to reduce access and risk,” she said. “Reducing access to lethal suicide methods is one of the few population-level interventions that has been shown to decrease suicide rates.”

Charette said reducing access to other means, including medications, is also important. She said unneeded or expired medications should be disposed of and others should be held in a locked container.

Sarah Sherman, director of strategic partnerships for the Bureau of Veterans’ Services, said plans for a task force started more than a year ago after bureau leadership attended the New England Veterans Suicide Prevention Conference in New Hampshire. During a presentation, it was said that Maine was the only state in New England that did not have a firearm safety task force.

Sherman said the firearms were a divisive political issue in some respects, but firearm safety is largely agreed upon by all groups.

“For the last two years, Maine has led the Northeast in veteran firearm suicide rate,” she said. “We really can’t waste the time to be arguing on (guns) because reducing veteran suicide is the ultimate goal.”

Sherman said the group will distribute brochures with information that could encourage gun safety in the home. Other information could relate to recognizing red flags in behavior and aid in the creation of a Veteran Safety Plan when a mental health event begins.

“There are things you can look (for) and we’re trying to promote awareness in general,” Sherman said. “If you’re seeing these things, you need to act.”

The brochures present suicide statistics and tips for gun safety, dubbed the “11 Commandments of Gun Safety,” which include treating every firearm as if it were loaded and preventing unauthorized access to the firearm.

The Veteran Safety Plan is written by the veteran and often details what he or she would like to see happen during the event, like visiting with a friend or calling doctors. That plan could also mean moving medications or guns to a safer location temporarily.

Sherman said the task force will also look to partner with the VA and local police departments to hand out a surplus of gun locks across the state.

O’Keefe said community members often unintentionally make veterans believe that their experiences are foreign or unwelcome topics of discussion, by using phrases like “I can’t even imagine” when veterans speak about their service.

“Coming home and feeling like you have nothing in common with other people; it’s bad and entirely unintentional by the civilian community,” he said. “It makes home not feel like home anymore.”

He said the problem of veteran suicide could be improved with a cultural, societal change to reduce isolation, but said the task force’s exchange of ideas is certainly “the right thing.”

“You could help a lot more people by looking at a cultural change than just saying it’s a task force question,” he said. “It’s a broader society issue, and it’s not anyone’s fault; it’s just the way it is.”

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