Medical Center Director Pushes for Community Suicide Prevention Efforts - Fayetteville VA Coastal Health Care System
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Fayetteville VA Coastal Health Care System


Medical Center Director Pushes for Community Suicide Prevention Efforts

March 10, 2013

Print Version (MS Word)

Fayetteville Observer Published: 10:45 AM, Sun Mar 10, 2013

Op-ed: Fighting Veteran suicides

By Elizabeth Goolsby

During the past couple of weeks, articles have appeared in this newspaper that bring into question the care we are providing for our veterans, especially those who are at high risk for suicide or have expressed suicidal thoughts.

In 2012, the Fayetteville Veterans Affairs Medical Center and its Community Based Outpatient Clinics cared for 55,000 veteran patients. Two of those patients took their own lives. One patient had no known mental health issues or concerns; the other did have a mental health history and was engaged in active treatment. The total of seven deaths by suicide since 2009, including these two, is a tragic and premature loss of life. One suicide is one too many.

A question we ask ourselves each day is, could these suicides have been prevented? Could we have done more or something different? That is a difficult question in that four of the seven had no previously identified mental-health issues. The three with known mental-health issues were participating in mental-health care.

The question might be asked, why can't you predict who will commit suicide? Unlike cardiac disease, where a stress test or cardiac catheterization can be performed to determine heart damage and repair needed, or the blood tests for diabetes to help determine how much insulin an individual needs, it is much more difficult to predict who will attempt or complete suicide.

Research has shown that there are risk factors associated with an individual's decision to attempt and/or complete suicide, as well as protective factors that would prevent an individual from acting on suicidal thoughts. Asking about these factors serves as a guide in determining the level of risk for suicide. However, there will certainly be complex cases that are much more difficult to predict. This is particularly true in our veterans.

We have the best-trained military in the world. They have been trained to be low revealers of information and keep secrets very well. They had to keep secrets in order to protect themselves and their buddies and to accomplish the mission. Those skill sets have been ingrained in them and carry over throughout their lives. They know how to hide emotions and feelings and may be unable to ask for help or even identify that help is needed.

We must all be mindful of the problems presented by stigma, a set of negative beliefs and perceptions in society that may lead to fear, rejection and discrimination toward those who experience a mental-health issue. The effect of stigma can be devastating for those who ask for mental-health care and may even prevent an individual from ever presenting for treatment. The effects of stigma are seemingly worse when the stigma is self-imposed - when individuals feel they are indeed inferior and are not worthy of striving for emotional wellness.

The recent newspaper articles regarding veterans and suicide have brought to light the very difficult nature of suicide, and in some cases served to frighten those most in need of help.

Don't be afraid to ask

As a society, we ask family members, friends and colleagues how they are doing and how they feel when they have physical concerns. We do not hesitate to ask if someone is having chest pain; we know the asking does not cause a heart attack.

Conversely, family and friends generally get very uncomfortable when the concern is emotional or a mental-health concern. We sometimes ignore those changes in behavior that might signal a need for help. We may subscribe to the mistaken belief that if we ask someone if they are intending to harm themselves or commit suicide, that we are creating or endorsing the thought for them to do so. Asking about suicide does not contribute to suicide. Asking about behavior and emotional changes gives all of us an opportunity to intervene and maybe avert a crisis.

What can we do, as individuals, to help those in need when you may not even recognize they are in need? I ask that you use the ACE approach.

A: Ask the question. When a change in behavior is noted, ask the individual if he is thinking about harming or killing himself.

C: Care for the individual. Remove the means that could be used for self-injury. Stay calm. Actively listen to what is being said.

E: Escort the individual to help. Never leave an individual with self-harm intent alone. Escort the individual to the nearest emergency room immediately. Call the Suicide Prevention Hotline at 800-273-8255 (TALK).

Changes in behavior or expressions of self-harm are not a phase. They need to be taken seriously and acted upon immediately. It should not be put off until tomorrow nor dismissed as not serious. Just as the presence of hopelessness is among the top risk factors for suicide, in turn, the presence of hope represents a protective factor. Let us all be proactive in promoting hope for all of those who suffer.

Elizabeth Goolsby is director of the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Fayetteville.