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VA working to decrease number of suicides among veterans

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This week, the Army announced a surge in the number of suicides among active soldiers. Veterans can run into similar struggles long after they've taken off the uniform. Now, the Department of Veterans Affairs has launched a new offensive to battle an enemy within.

If you're a veteran struggling and contemplating suicide, don't wait to ask for help; that's the message from a new public service announcement featuring Gary Sinise, which now airs nationwide.

"They have sacrificed mentally, physically and emotionally through their service. They deserve the services we have available. We want them to come in and access those so we can help them in their transition," said Dr. Michael Koplin, suicide prevention coordinator at the George E. Wahlen Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

The Utah VA area reported 13 suicides in fiscal year 2007, and 45 attempts. In 2008, there were 104 suicide attempts and 8 completed suicides. "We actually think that because we're doing a better job identifying veterans at risk, we've seen a reduction in the number of completed suicides among our veterans," Koplin said.

"Coming in and talking to someone in a counseling setting, or talking to a trusted friend or partner, helps them to be able to broaden out their perspective and see that it's not going to be an effective choice, and that suicide actually ends up causing more problems than they think they're solving," said Dr. Steven Allen, of the VA's Post Traumatic Stress Disorder Clinical Team.

Allen says there are different aspects to each war, but a commonality to the trauma that troops experience. Trauma is a constant that the military cannot escape.

The support system that protected them on the battlefield is gone. Their families and employers may not understand. "So, they get depressed," says Koplin. "They get a sense of hopelessness, a sense of not being able to be successful in civilian life."

The VA's hotline has already received thousands of calls. It saves lives and encourages soldiers to learn a new approach. "The strength of soldiers is to ask for help. When they're struggling, they ask for their buddies to help. Around mental health issues, it's a more difficult experience," Allen explained.

The televised PSAs also help break down the stigma surrounding a plea for help. "The PSAs really provide a chance for soldiers to rethink what it's like to get help and to say, 'This is the strong thing to do, is to ask for help,'" Allen said.

Recognizing the growing problems veterans have with mental health issues, the VA in Salt Lake increased the size of its mental health staff. In 2000, that staff numbered around 100 employees. Today, it's more than 160.


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Jed Boal


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