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Suicide Prevention: The War at Home

Military suicide

Kim Ruocco, MSW, is Vice President, Suicide Prevention and Postvention at the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS) and the surviving spouse of Marine Corps Maj. John Ruocco, who died by suicide in 2005.

Daniel Lee O'Brien graduated from boot camp in August of 2005. He was a Marine, like his father and grandfather before him. Daniel did two tours in Iraq in short order. He returned home and married his sweetheart, Lisa. They had a little girl, Alexis Leah, who was Daniel's "number one." But his life began to fall apart as PTS waged war on his mind. He was 22 years old when he died by suicide.

Dana O'Brien (OB), who served in Vietnam, began to fight his own demons following the death of his grandson, Daniel. Daniel's death, combined with his own unresolved pain from Vietnam, threatened to destroy him, but the power of love from his family and TAPS, combined with treatment, saved his life. This morning, and every morning, OB reaches out to veterans and families of the fallen by calling or sending a text message. He reminds them there are people in their lives who love them as he loved his grandson.

The rate of suicide has increased in recent years for the U.S. population as a whole. According to the Department of Veterans' Affairs most recent report on suicide, this rate has increased more dramatically for veterans than for non-veterans, with the risk of suicide approximately 21 percent greater for veterans.

In addition, the rate is approximately 2.4 times higher for female veterans than for non-veterans. Statistics also indicate that families affected by suicide are at a higher risk of death by suicide themselves.

More lives have been lost to suicide in the past 15 years than the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan combined. Like war, suicide doesn't discriminate. It touches all -- all ranks, all socio-economic groups, and all races. There is help for those suffering from suicidal thoughts, there are treatment options that work -- options that will decrease the pain, not just numb it.

There are programs that stand at the ready to help with evidence-based, best-practice care. But it is up to us, the community, to find new and innovative ways to connect these programs to service members, veterans and military family members in need.

Once, veterans who died by suicide were kept from burial in VA cemeteries, and their survivors, denied certain benefits. In short, it was viewed as a dishonorable death. Slowly, we have begun to understand more about suicide and the complex factors that contribute to it. We are beginning to understand that like cancer or a broken leg, if PTS, mood disorders, moral injuries, and TBI go untreated, they can be fatal.  

Of course, there are pragmatic issues to contend with in helping ensure our veterans have the care and support they need. This means adequate staff and resources at the VA. It will take more than money, however, to eradicate suicide in the military. At TAPS, we have partnered with national, public and private organizations to combat suicide.

Together with such organizations as the National Action Alliance, the American Association of Suicidology, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, SAHMSA, SPRC, DSPO, the VA and others, we are determined to make a difference.

We advocate for increased funding for organized peer support for veterans and their families to decrease stress and provide opportunities to share resources. Too often these families are suffering alone without the knowledge of others who are in a similar situation. Peers can be a bridge to professional care and a beacon of hope for those who are suffering.

We must also have a serious discussion to determine how best family members can be involved in treatment options without breaching HIPAA, and to provide families with more professional support such as a 24/7 hotline.

And lastly, we need to encourage veterans who have faced suicide to become peer-professional mental health counselors. Who better to provide care than those who have experienced a similar journey?

Suicide among our service members and veterans is a war that must be fought -- a war to win back the minds of our veterans. Our military has fought for us for over two centuries. Now it is our turn. Our duty.

It is the time for us, the civilians, to step up to the frontline and recognize the need to focus on mental health and wellness and speak of death by suicide as often a consequence of untreated illness.

Let us honor the lives of all service members who have died in service to our nation, fighting for life abroad and here at home. The majority of our veterans are healthy, strong and productive but a percentage of them will need mental health care as a result of their service.

As a country, we need to wrap our arms around those who have sacrificed so much and are now suffering. We need to offer hope to those who can see no light. Love and treatment can overcome darkness and death. That is the lesson that OB O'Brien reminds of us daily

Since 1994, TAPS has provided compassionate care for the families of America's fallen military heroes and has offered support to more than 70,000 surviving family members and their caregivers, including special programming for those affected by a death by suicide. If you have lost a military loved one to suicide, you are not alone. For more information, visit taps.org or access TAPS 24/7 Helpline at 800-959-8277.

-- The opinions expressed in this op-ed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Military.com.

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