Service members see increasing focus on suicide, crisis services
There’s a running joke among military veterans who receive care at Grand Junction’s Veterans Affairs Medical Center that they can’t go anywhere inside the building without someone asking whether they’re suicidal.
It didn’t used to be that way.
Since 2005, when officials started to take note that the suicide rate among veterans had risen precipitously, the local veterans’ hospital was ordered to bolster its suicide prevention efforts. Now veterans are queried at every medical visit whether they are feeling suicidal or thinking about hurting themselves. Veterans also can’t venture anywhere in the facility without taking in the phone number for the Veterans Crisis Line. It’s 1-800-273-8255.
Yet getting veterans to talk about their feelings — or simply the thought of being asked what had long been viewed as a guarded personal matter — wasn’t immediately embraced.
Sonja Encke, a psychiatric nurse practitioner with the hospital, said she received her share of cold stares and disbelief eight years ago when she started asking such probing questions.
“They’d look at me like, ‘What are you talking about?’ or ‘That’s none of your business,’” Encke said of conversations in those early days.
Those attitudes are melting away at Grand Junction’s VA, Encke said, since the agency has zeroed in on suicide prevention efforts. In 2012, three veterans were among the 47 people who completed suicide in Mesa County. One veteran had been registered with the VA, another was registered but hadn’t yet received services and the third was not registered in the VA program, Encke said. Nationwide, an estimated 22 veterans commit suicide each day, the majority of those being over the age of 50.
“We have had a culture change at this VA,” she said of the sea change over the years in addressing suicide. “People here are more apt to talk about it.”
Additionally, veterans have another tool to get help in peer support specialist Erin Chacon.
Chacon, an 8-year U.S. Army veteran, served as a medic and did a tour in Iraq.
Making a first connection with a fellow veteran can build a foundation of trust, Chacon said.
She knows first-hand how isolating it can be to return home to an area like Grand Junction, which does not have a military base. After serving their terms, veterans often return home, only to be burdened with a host of new responsibilities.
“A lot of them don’t want to talk to a civilian,” Chacon explained. “A lot of them are worried about labels. They’re so busy focusing on everything else that they forget to focus on themselves.”
Veterans’ officials push the agency’s crisis line. The line is open to any member of the military, including members of the National Guard and reservists. Family members of military personnel who are worried about their loved ones are encouraged to call. One doesn’t have to be in a suicidal crisis — any kind of crisis is OK — to dial the number. Calling the line also can be a launching point for veterans to enroll in the Veterans Affairs system. People can further access crisis services through texting or chatting online.
Although the line is connected to a national phone bank, callers can be directed to local services, officials said.
Veterans’ officials encourage veterans to use the line because they know it works, Encke said.
Since the crisis line was started in 2007, workers have answered more than 890,000 calls and saved more than 30,000 lives, the VA reported.
In addition, as part of the VA’s push for suicide prevention, local staff members are required to host at least five outreach programs a month.
Encke said she is available to talk to any type of group to help educate people about the issue.