More service members took their own lives in 2012 than died in battle, a rate of nearly one suicide a day.
The troubling statistic underscores the need for veterans struggling with mental health problems to get help, says Dr. David Houlihan, chief of staff at the VA Medical Center in Tomah.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and others have called the record toll an epidemic. Last year’s tally of 349 was up from 301 the previous year and exceeded the number of 295 Americans killed in Afghanistan in 2012.
Suicide numbers among veterans are harder to pin down. Veterans account for 20 percent of the 30,000 to 32,000 suicides a year, according to a VA report issued last year. However, that statistic doesn’t specify whether the suicides were related to military service or unrelated problems that arose in a person’s life after leaving the armed forces.
The key for successful treatment is the same among veterans as it is for the general population — acknowledging a problem and seeking help, Houlihan said.
The problem — especially for veterans, officials say — is that seeking help is somehow perceived as a weakness.
“Ultimately, the vet has to take the first step to get into a program instead of self-medicating with alcohol and drugs,” Houlihan said.
“When these people are coming back, they often don’t know what their issues are,” he said. “We can hope that we reach everyone, but the reality is that some don’t know they have issues.”
The number of veterans experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder and mild traumatic brain injuries has grown dramatically.
“Five to 10 years ago, it was a trickle. Now, it’s a constant flow,” Houlihan said. “We have a residential program that holds 45, and it stays full.”
Evidence indicates that suicide rates are lower for veterans ages 18-29 who use VA health care services than those who do not, according to the VA report.
VA medical centers have suicide-prevention coordinators to stem the tide.
Mike Knapp, who serves in that role at the Tomah center, said his office maintains a list of veterans considered high risk for suicide, based on referrals from doctors or the center’s outpatient clinic.
“If they are on the high-risk list, we monitor them and make sure they don’t fall through the cracks,” Knapp said.
The list averages 35 to 40 at any given time.
“Among people who are really critical and receiving services, the (suicide) rates are really low,” he said. “Basically, it’s because they’re seeking help.”
Knapp’s office also takes referrals from the Veterans Crisis Line, which screens callers and notifies the closest VA center about what the patient needs.
The Tomah center also regularly reaches out through its clinics, veterans justice specialists, veterans court, county veterans service officers and meetings for veterans to show how the center can help, Houlihan said.
“We take pride in bringing them in and finding what works for them,” he said. “If they get hooked into the system, we have a chance.”