Reaching Out To Veterans

Efforts to prevent veterans’ suicides may soon be going high tech.

According to a new report published by the U.S. Veterans Administration (VA), suicide rates among South Dakota veterans jumped 24% from 2017 to 2018.

Findings of the 2020 National Veteran Suicide Prevention Annual Report released in November are based on data collected through 2018.

“The most recent numbers from the VA are from 2018, and the rate is 35.8 per 100,000 people,” Col. Michael Hudson (USMC-ret.), Vice President of ClearForce, told the Press & Dakotan. “In 2017 it was 28.8 per 100,000.”

The issue of veterans’ suicide concerns him and he believes that financial stress and isolation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic could drive that statistic even higher, he said.

“Just to put it in context, on the South Dakota Governor’s homepage, they break out beyond just veteran suicide,” Hudson said. “Suicide is the ninth leading cause of death in the state, is the second leading cause of death in the age group of 15-34 and is the leading cause of death in the age group of 10-19.”

Veterans in those age groups are also identified by the VA as one of the highest at-risk groups for suicide, he noted.

“This not just in South Dakota,” he said. “I think a lot of the driving with risk factors identified by the VA, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Department of Defense (DOD), translate right into the population in South Dakota.”

Those factors include issues of connectedness, financial hardship and substance abuse, Hudson noted.

“Another risk factor is rural versus urban,” he said. “Some of the data suggests that the rural population is at increased risk because of additional barriers.”

Those barriers can include physical distance from VA facilities and veteran service organizations.

“The help is not moving to the vet,” Hudson said. “That’s what we want to change.”

The military trains individuals to be self-reliant and to problem solve,” he said. “Some veterans’ self-reliance is a point of pride and some will push too far before asking for help.”

Reaching those veterans first eliminates the stigma of having to seek help, especially in the area of mental health.

Hudson’s work with ClearForce, a Virginia-based technology company that helps organizations identify and manage insider risks posed by employees, seemed like it could help prevent veteran suicide as well, he said.

“What we do that’s unique is, we look at the individual,” he said. “We use unique technologies and proprietary formulas that allow organizations to become aware of individuals who are struggling and put all that information into a secure platform.”

Without compromising privacy, employers can be made aware in such a way as to have an informed outreach to an individual sooner, before a crisis situation can develop, Hudson said.

“Today, veterans have to take the first step,” he said. “They have to call a number or text a number. They have to ask or go knock on a door, and behind that door, there’s a lot of great support.”

However, the data shows that 70% of veterans who die by suicide do not take that first step for help, Hudson said.”

“We have to flip that,” he said. “Using our technology, we could allow the VA or veteran service organization to reach out to an individual and provide specific materials given what their life events would tell is at risk.”

For example, an individual experiencing a serious life event, including mortgage foreclosure or divorce, could receive an email from the VA detailing the help available to address that specific issue, without violating privacy, he said.

“I think any way to get ahead of a crisis situation, identifying factors — whether it’s housing, homelessness — that can lead up to a crisis situation to steer that in a better direction is a positive thing,” said Jon Feiock, community engagement and partnerships coordinator for the Sioux Falls VA Health Care System.

Currently, the Veterans and Military Crisis Line is a good entry point to any veteran seeking information or crisis intervention, he told the Press & Dakotan.

“Historically, the VA was primarily centered internally to the best level of care, but recognizes that VA-eligible veterans may not be coming into the VA,” Feiock said. “We’ve been trying to work with care providers outside of the walls — like in Yankton, Lewis & Clark Behavioral Health Services (LCBHS) — trying to work to make sure that providers are aware of military culture.”

LCBHS is an area first-line responder in mental health crisis situations with a staffed 24-hour crisis line.

Dr. David Dracy, LCBHS clinical psychologist, veterans’ service provider and a veteran himself, said that mental health issues are the most difficult for veterans to seek help for, so he tries to remain accessible to them.

“Every time we’ve had a deployment, and every time folks have returned, I’ve gone and visited with the people in the families,” he said. “I think that’s really important when our folks are returning from deployment that the people in community that are in the mental health field, show up and express their appreciation and say, ‘We’re here for folks.’”

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To reach the Veterans and Military Crisis Line, call 1-800-273-8255 and press 1. To reach Lewis & Clark Behavioral Health Services emergency services, call 605-665-4606 or 1-800-765-3382.

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