Defense, VA Officials Address Suicide at Conference
By Army Sgt. 1st Class Michael J. Carden
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Jan. 11, 2010 – There are no clear-cut answers to suicide prevention, but through collaboration and team work from federal and private institutions, the nation can better address the challenge, Defense and Veteran Affairs department officials said today.
In a joint Defense-VA conference here, more than 1,000 military and other-government health-care workers and officials gathered for the 2nd Annual DoD/VA Suicide Prevention Conference. Titled “Building Strong and Resilient Communities,” the conference is the largest of its kind for military members and their families.
The conference, which runs through Jan. 14, is geared toward increasing collaboration between the military and VA by raising awareness and sharing best practices in prevention.
Suicide prevention isn’t a new challenge, but it’s one both departments are dedicating much effort to. In his keynote address, VA Secretary Eric K. Shinseki said soldier suicide is an issue that troubled him throughout his military career. It’s an issue that still concerns him, as he is charged with providing services to more than 7 million veterans.
“Throughout my years and service in uniform, suicides were one of the most frustrating leadership challenges I faced,” Shinseki, a retired Army general, chief of staff, and Vietnam War veteran, said. “We continue to be challenged.”
Of the more than 30,000 people who fall to suicide nationwide each year, 20 percent are veterans. About 18 veterans commit suicide every day. Each of VA’s 153 medical centers and the largest of its 774 community-based outpatient clinics have suicide prevention coordinators who ensure counseling and services as a priority, he said.
Everyone is vulnerable to suicide, the secretary said. Age, personality or positions in the military and in society hold no bearing on who’s more at risk. Emotional wounds are just as common as physical injuries, but more difficult to spot, which makes suicide prevention such a challenge, he said.
“You can splint and patch physical wounds, but emotional wounds don’t lend themselves to such fixes,” he added. “But we must continuously develop equivalent accommodations.”
In the veteran community, VA has established 24/7 help lines, hired thousands of additional health-care professionals and counselors, 400 of which are dedicated solely to suicide prevention research and counseling.
VA has developed a culture of ownership, which Shinseki feels is the most critical aspect of solution, he said. Raising awareness in individuals to take responsibility in helping their family members, fellow servicemembers and veterans is essential in this endeavor, he added.
“We must build and maintain a strong support system, one in which everyone has a role, where we collectively assume ownership of the problem,” he said. “It’s not someone else’s problem, it’s our problem. It doesn’t matter whether they’re in uniform or not.”
Shinseki charged the audience with furthering VA and Defense Department efforts. Both departments stand to be better positioned to aid the men and women who are struggling to regain the courage to live, he said.
“This audience of health-care providers, clinicians, counselors, researchers and community partners constitutes our main attack against suicides,” he continued. “You’re the experts. You bring full weight to the discussion. You dispense help and hope to those who see themselves as helpless and without hope.”
Giving people information on the departments’ array of prevention resources is another key aspect in the two organizations’ efforts, Ellen P. Embrey, assistant defense secretary for health affairs, said in her remarks on behalf of the Defense Department.
The armed services are addressing suicide prevention through increased sensitivity to warning signs and developing comprehensive education and services throughout a servicemember’s career, she said.
Embrey also cited enhanced community and peer support and quality research and analysis as part of the Defense Department’s initiatives. Still, both departments have a long way to go in better understanding suicide prevention, she said.
“Every life lost to suicide is both a personal tragedy and a tragedy to society, whether civilian or military,” she said. “It’s also a tragedy because, for all of our sophisticated knowledge, we still do not know all there is to know about preventing these needless deaths from occurring.”
Embrey continued by highlighting initiatives taking place in each of the services. The Air Force, Army, Navy and Marine Corps all have their unique programs and methods, but all are equally important in combating suicides, she said.
“They highlight a holistic and comprehensive strategy that we are attempting to bring to bear to confront the challenge of suicide,” she said. “We are doing this primarily through increasing education and awareness, building very strong systems of support at a 360-degree level and reducing stigma to the extent possible to those who are trying and need to get help.
“As far as the Department of Defense is concerned, there is no individual, family member, military leader, or VA or DoD or community resource that can be omitted from the suicide prevention equation,” she added.
Implementing these strategies is not just a commitment, it’s an obligation to the nation’s servicemembers and veterans, she said.
“We own them a debt of gratitude, we owe them the very best we can give them, and we are committed to reducing the burden of suicide,” Embrey said. “The communities of partnership of both the Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs are absolutely dedicated to this issue, and our attention will not lag, and our dedication will not falter.”
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