VA, Ohio State take steps to stem veteran suicides
The number of veterans receiving Veterans Administration health care nationally who die by suicide is about six a day; veterans not using VA health services die by suicide at a rate of 11 a day, prompting new initiatives to reach out to more veterans, especially younger veterans. And at Ohio State University, a special focus has been put on the needs of the university’s veterans.
Nathan Tomcik didn’t need to read the latest numbers from a national report to know there is more work to be done to stop this country’s veterans from killing themselves. He sees it every day.
But, as chief psychologist and division director for outpatient behavioral health at the Chalmers P. Wylie VA Ambulatory Care Center in Columbus, Tomcik understands that suicide isn’t just a veteran issue. He said it’s something all of society must work together to end.
“What puts somebody at the greatest risk for dying of suicide is when they feel like they are a burden to society or feel disconnected from a group or from the world,” Tomcik said. “If we are to be serious about ending suicide, it isn’t something the VA can do alone. We have to kind of move away from this trend of disengagement and really find out more about who is next to us, our neighbors, and what they are all about. We have to care.”
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs recently released its latest suicide report, which included numbers from 2015, the most recent year available. The average number of veterans dying by suicide across the country remained unchanged at about 20 a day. In Ohio, 210 veterans killed themselves in 2015, with the highest number of those (76) being between the ages of 55 and 74.
When the VA looked at suicide rates (the number of suicide deaths divided by the population, then multiplied by 100,000), both nationally and in Ohio, the rates increased substantially among younger veterans ages 18 to 34, while rates for that same age bracket of non-veterans remained relatively stable nationally. In Ohio, the rate of suicide for veterans in the age range of 18 to 34 was 50 per 100,000; while the Ohio suicide rate for non-veterans in that age group was just under 17 per 100,000.
The latest report also showed that the number of veterans receiving VA health care nationally who die by suicide is about six a day; veterans not using VA health services die by suicide at a rate of 11 a day. A group that includes active-duty troops, guardsmen and reservists die by suicide at a rate of four a day.
The obvious challenges then, experts say, are not only to get more veterans into the system, but to better reach those who are not — especially younger veterans.
Michelle Harris, a psychologist who supervises the suicide-prevention team and behavioral-health walk-in program at the Columbus VA center, said a number of practical changes have been made to increase access to crisis care as well as prevention.
Younger veterans especially, she said, are more likely to screen their calls and are more difficult to reach by phone or follow-ups. So suicide-prevention team members will soon have text-enabled phones to communicate with veterans. And some younger veterans who have had a prior hospitalization have been provided iPads so they can videoconference with clinicians when necessary when they otherwise might not have made a trip to see someone for treatment.
In addition, hours at the Chalmers outpatient urgent care have increased to include evenings and weekends (7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. weekdays, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. on weekends and holidays.) Any veteran, whether already in the system or not, who comes in and needs behavioral-health care during that time will get immediate help, Tomcik said.
“Not just an assessment, but real treatment that very same day,” Tomcik said.
At Ohio State University, where the Suicide Prevention Program is touted across the country as groundbreaking in academia, a special focus has been put on the needs of the university’s veteran population the past couple of years, said Laura Lewis, the program’s assistant director.
The suicide-prevention office teamed up with the Office of Military and Veterans Services and began a targeted program last year called “RUOK? Veterans” In the fall, some veterans on campus were invited to voluntarily fill out anonymous, online mental-health assessments. Out of 163 veterans sent the questionnaire, 70 responded. Counselors then reached out online, with communication remaining anonymous, unless or until veterans choose to add their name.
The number of responses was hopeful, Lewis said. National statistics show that if students positively engage with an online counselor, they are three times more likely to make an in-person visit and seek treatment.
“We know that suicide is preventable. We also know that treatment works,” Lewis said. “So trying to communicate to our veterans that there is healing, and there is support and you don’t have to battle alone, that just opens a door. It offers hope.”
To get help: Contact the Veteran Crisis Line at 800-273-8255 (select option 1); text 838255 to that phone number, or visit VeteransCrisisLine.net. Also, by calling the national Coaching into Care hotline at 888-823-7458, caregivers, friends or relatives of veterans can speak with licensed professionals for advice on behavioral-health care free of charge.