Suicide is a complex and difficult topic, but first and foremost it is a public health issue.

Like most health problems, there are resources for people who need help, and treatments that really work. Because of the stigma surrounding suicide, however, it is difficult for some people to come forward, or for others to recognize when something’s going on with a loved one and know the right thing to do.

The stigma is particularly strong around veterans, who come from a culture that rewards toughness and stoicism. Let’s hope a new initiative in Maine can help.

The Maine Bureau of Veterans’ Services is heading up the Maine Safer Homes Task Force, which is aimed at raising awareness and distributing information on veteran suicide, the Kennebec Journal reported this week.

The group will particularly focus on access to firearms, a key risk factor. Suicides among veterans rose about a decade ago and have stayed elevated, with about three-quarters resulting by firearm – often, experts say, because a firearm was available during a fleeting moment of crisis that could have been treated.

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

It’s not only veterans who need help. Suicides in recent years have been higher than usual across the population. In Maine, the suicide rate for both veterans and the population in general is much higher than regional and national rates.

Veterans face their own unique challenges; as retired Army National Guard Sgt. George O’Keefe of Winthrop told the KJ, they can come back back from service “feeling like you have nothing in common with other people.”

But people of all backgrounds can experience the same feelings of despair and hopeless. Most important for them to know is that effective treatments are available, if they or someone close to them knows enough to recognize trouble and seek out help.

People should familiarize themselves with the warning signs – talking about wanting to die, withdrawing and mood swings, among others – and how to react to them – don’t leave the person alone, remove firearms, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

More can be done to lower suicide rates. Treatment for mental health and substance use disorder should be made more widely available, as it will be soon when a new residential treatment center for veterans is created at Togus VA outside of Augusta. We need to build strong and vital neighborhoods and communities that prevent isolation and provide opportunity and support for its members.

A new, easier to remember hotline number – 988 – has been approved, too, so help will be that much closer to the people who need it. It should come sooner, however, as it’s not planned to come online until July 2022, and it should include texting, which many people prefer over a phone call.

But the most meaningful thing everyone can do right now – part of what the Maine Safer Homes Task Force is being formed to promote – is to know the warning signs and where to go for help when you see them.

The most important thing is to treat suicide like the health issue that it is.

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