The tide of suicide in the United States is unrelenting, and the approximately 20 veteran and military suicides each day cannot be ignored.
To prevent these tragedies, the veteran community, the Department of Veterans Affairs and Department of Defense, and leading mental health organizations aggressively target the critical moment of crisis when a person is contemplating the act of suicide.
These critical organizations are lined up in a strong “end zone defense,” providing multiple areas of support for veterans in the midst of a suicidal crisis.
But what about veterans who haven’t reached a crisis point? What if there was a way to provide relief for everyday problems, pain and isolation before these issues snowball into self-destruction?
As a retired major general in the U.S. Army, who has lost a son to suicide, and a son to the war in Iraq, I can attest that the key is to connect with veterans before they reach the point of crisis.
Veterans are often reluctant to speak with anyone who “won’t understand” when they’re dealing with depression or anxiety about life issues. Many feel the pressure to figure it out themselves and “stay tough” and are embarrassed to discuss their problems with finances, relationship issues, housing issues, family dysfunction, or feelings of loneliness and isolation.
The reality is they need a direct connection to someone who has been in their shoes, long before they need a direct intervention. They need a peer.
Everyone needs a support system. Peer support provides veterans that sense of immediate trust, and gives them a confidant they can connect with at any point in their journey.
I joined Vets4Warriors in 2013 to lead a 24/7 peer-support network that serves all veterans as well as the entire military community, from those who just put on a uniform to the caregiver and families of a veteran who has long since stopped wearing a uniform.
Our peers are veterans from every branch and every era, dating back to Vietnam, and 70 percent of our peers are combat veterans. We truly are who we serve.
Since inception, we have had over 325,000 connections with members of the veteran and military community who are dealing with life challenges before they turn into crises. Regardless of the complexity of the issue or how long it takes, our veteran peers continue to follow up, seek out possible avenues, and pursue different options until an answer is found. We go the extra mile. And that is often what veterans need to help put them on a path that does not lead to tragedy.
Peer support is in many ways an upstream tactic in the fight against veteran suicide. Peers identify the issue at hand and can provide support and resources before the problem becomes unbearable.
Yet even with resources like ours available, when it comes to certain demographics of veterans, the rate of suicide is growing.
According to the most recent report on veteran suicide published by the Department of Veterans Affairs, the suicide rate of young veterans, those aged 18 to 34, increased more than 10 percent from 2015 to 2016. The largest number of suicides remain among aging veterans, since the majority of veterans are 55 or older.
Research has found that many suicides are decided impulsively, with less than five minutes between the decision to attempt suicide and the actual attempt. In other words, there is yet a brief moment in time in which we can intercept someone’s fateful decision. This is why it is critical to get upstream and tap into the power of peer support to help veterans grapple with their problems, challenges and even opportunities long before they find themselves in crisis.
Vets4Warriors is a connecting network; we connect with individuals and also connect them to resources, preferably in their communities, and then we remain connected as we follow up with them regularly.
I have seen this type of scenario play out many times with our peer-support network. An active-duty soldier from Fort Bragg struggling at work called Vets4Warriors and described how his marriage and children were suffering as he dealt with his PTSD. After speaking with one of our peers, he agreed to go to behavioral health services on post as well as to speak to the chaplain. During the first follow-up call, he stated that his peer at Vets4Warriors had been a “blessing to him.” The follow-up calls continue.
Mike Rowe, host of the Discovery Channel series “Dirty Jobs,” once said: “We live in the most connected time in the history of the world, yet we’ve never been more disconnected from the things that matter the most.”
It makes a critical difference to immediately connect with someone who has walked the path and knows what you’re going through.
Peer support is vital for saving lives across our nation. We should all seek to always be there for those who hit tough times and struggles, whenever they may happen. Vets4Warriors is available 24/7 and we answer the phone live.
Retired Army Maj. Gen. Mark Graham is director of Vets4Warriors. Veterans experiencing a mental health emergency can contact the Veteran Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255 and select option 1 for a VA staffer. If you want to speak with a peer, call Vets4Warriors at 1-855-838-8255, visit www.Vets4Warriors.com or follow us on social @Vets4Warriors to learn more.