According to government and private research, the number of veterans who take their own lives by suicide has been holding steady from 20 to 22 per day, but according to the Nevada Rural Counties Retired and Senior Volunteers Program (RSVP), that number is still too high.
As veterans learned Saturday at the Governor’s Mansion Nevada Room, programs and training are continually being implemented to assist residents and medical health professionals with suicide awareness prevention and steps to obtain the necessary help and treatment for veterans.
“Reaching for Zero: A veteran appreciation and veteran suicides awareness brunch” tapped into the expertise from three speakers who have been directly involved with local programs.
Kevin Burns, a professor at Western Nevada College, knows the pain first-hand when a family member takes his own life. He said for many veterans who train in suicide awareness and prevention, the topic is a difficult one to discuss.
“I got into this business because of my father, a World War II veteran in the 38th Infantry Division, Army, who went on shore with Gen. MacArthur to liberate the Philippines,” Burns said.
Twenty years almost to the day after the invasion to free the island country, however, Burns, who was 9 years old at the time, said his father hanged himself. Burns couldn’t understand why his father would end his life. He had a doctorate’s degree in psychology and was a clinical psychologist who worked with children.
Burns, who served in the U.S. Marine Corps, encountered comrades returning from Desert Storm who had suicidal tendencies, yet he recognized their signs and intervened. His passion for healing veterans to overcome their dark thoughts wheeled Burns into being an advocate for veterans’ programs.
“I got involved with United Veterans Legislative Council, our way of veterans’ organization to become one voice at the legislature,” he said, adding the group included veterans from many service-related organizations.
During the last legislative session, Burns said the council received some guidance from Kat Miller, director of the Nevada Department of Veterans Services. As a member of Gov. Brian Sandoval’s staff, she couldn’t give direction on what the council could say or not say, but as Burns put it, “she showed us what doors were open and what doors were not.”
The council had 27 veterans’ bills introduced and only two failed. He said the one bill closest to his heart that passed provided additional training for the medical community in suicide awareness and prevention. When researching information, Burns said he read a study from Michigan State University that found 60 percent of veterans who committed suicide had seen a medical provider during the same month and 38 percent had seen a provided during the same week.
Burns said suicides are not a community problem but a societal one because, he pointed out, more people have their eyes glued to cellphones or other electronic devices.
“We can’t feel because we don’t see the person in front of us,” he said.
While the number of suicides has focused on the younger veterans, Burns said there’s been an uptick in the number of veterans from the Vietnam War era who are taking their lives. Now, after many of them had jobs, raised a family and made a life for themselves, they are retired, but the memories of a war that occurred 50 years ago are bubbling up again.
He said many veterans took an oath to protect the Constitution of the United States when they served. He said his oath didn’t have an expiration date and encourages his fellow veterans to become more involved.
“I took an oath a long time ago and one of the things I promised was never leave anyone on the battlefield, but we are leaving people on the battlefield,” he said of the suicide problem.
Burns said he is a Marine for life, and because of that, if any of his brothers or sisters needed help, and if they lived on the other side of Nevada, he would be there for them.
“We’re not active duty, but that doesn’t mean we stop checking up on our fellow veterans,” he added. “It’s amazing. You look in someone’s eye who has an everlasting pain but suddenly makes that connection.”
Lisa Walsh, associate warden of the Warm Springs Correctional Center in Carson City, said she appreciated Burns’ help in establishing some initiatives for the incarcerated veterans at Warm Springs. Walsh wanted to know how many veterans were housed at the facility and what programs would help them.
Of the 575 inmates at Warm Springs, she said 71 were veterans, or over 10 percent.
“I was kind of shocked with those numbers,” she said.
Walsh’s first goal was to establish a veterans’ dorm, and 10 veterans volunteered to help her with the dorm and other programs. After finding additional research, she also discovered the background of veterans varies from the general inmate population. Veterans tend to have at least a high-school education, are Caucasian and were married or divorced. Their sentences tended not to be longer.
Walsh also discovered that in Nevada, the fifth leading cause of death in prison is suicide and affected inmates were under the treatment for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, had a traumatic brain injury or had substance abuse problems.
Warm Springs also helped incarcerated veterans to continue their education by fundraising for scholarships. In 2016, inmates raised more than $20,000 and because of the publicity the program generated, a benefactor offered to donate $10,000 per semester.
To date, Walsh said they have raised more than $35,000 for scholarships.
“No taxpayer money was used,” Walsh said to loud applause.
Walsh said the veterans are also receiving suicide awareness and prevention training which may be able to recognize a cellmate’s negative tendencies. It is her hope, Walsh said, every incarcerated veteran and correctional officer receive the training.
“Truly, they’re there for one another, a true sign of espirit d’ corps,” she said. “We choose not to be defined by our current circumstances.”
Misty Vaughan Allen, suicide prevention coordinator for the Nevada Coalition of Suicide Prevention, works with many groups and coalitions to launch new suicide prevention programs. She said Nevada has one of the highest rates of suicide in the nation. A total of almost 45,000 suicides, though, occurred in the United States in 2016, and firearms were involved in five out of every 10 deaths. In Nevada, the percentage of firearms used in suicides was 51 percent, down from 57 percent five years ago.
From 2010-2016, Allen said the suicide rate for non-veterans was 22.1 percent compared to 53.2 percent for veterans. Among the major factors affecting veterans with suicidal thoughts are frequent deployments, deployment to a hostile region and stress.
“Young veterans who have been deployed are taking their lives,” Allen said. “Vietnam vets also have high numbers.”
She said it’s important for veterans and non-veterans to recognize the symptoms that could signal a person is troubled.
“Isolation is one of the biggest factors for suicides,” she said.
As with the Michigan State University study, Allen had additional statistics to show the highest risk for veterans taking their own lives occurs 24-48 hours after they visit a mental health professional.
She encouraged attendees to help get people connected and help veterans.
“We are going to reach zero someday,” she said.
Susan Haas, executive director and CEO, said RSVP is helping to raise funds and awareness for reducing veterans’ suicides. She said those involved with the program are proud of the veterans and their service to the country.
Carson City Mayor Robert Crowell and Nevada Attorney General Adam Laxalt, both Navy veterans, said the state continues to add programs to help the men and women who served in the armed forces. Laxalt said Gov. Brian Sandoval’s goal has been to make Nevada the friendliest state for veterans, but there’s more work to do.