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Veterans Affairs sets sights on suicide prevention

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news Alexandria, 56308
Alexandria Minnesota 225 7th Ave E
P.O. Box 549
56308

Twenty-two veterans die by suicide every day in the U.S. Any suicide statistic is too great a number, but taking into consideration the total U.S. population (315 million) and the number of veterans (22 million), that percentage is disproportionately high.

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Since 2001, per-day veteran suicides have remained between 18 and 22 nationally. In Minnesota, approximately 20 percent of people who die by suicide are veterans. There are 3,169 veterans living in Douglas County.

The local veterans' office has not been made aware of any increased activity for suicide services, said Ray Kallstrom, Douglas County Veterans' Service Office department head.

"We have never had a lot of calls on suicide services," Kallstrom said.

Since 2007, data has been collected and combined from the National Death Index, state mortality records, suicide behavior reports, veterans crisis line and the Department of Veterans Affairs' (VA) universal electronic medical records. The 2012 Suicide Data Report released by the VA was created from this compilation.

The report is intended to provide a better picture of what leads to veteran suicides, which can aid in suicide prevention program development and improve outcomes for veterans at risk for suicide. Previously, studies were based on information obtained primarily from veterans receiving care in VA facilities.

The project is ongoing; data from 21 states has been evaluated and entered into a single integrated file. Death by suicide has decreased percentage-wise among veterans, however the number of deaths by suicide overall has increased.

Suicides numbered 147,763 between 2009 and 2012; 27,062 of the deceased were listed as having U.S. military service on death certificates.

Prior to a database clean-up effort comparing the death certificate indicator in Washington to the VA and Department of Defense records, veteran status was misclassified on 5 percent of death certificates. Eleven percent of veterans were classified as non-veterans, 2 percent of non-veterans were listed as veterans and only 67 percent of true female veterans were identified.

CALL FOR HELP

The majority of veteran suicides are among men and women 50 years and older. Most callers to the Veterans Crisis Line are males between the ages of 50-59. Approximately 19 percent of callers to the crisis line call more than once each month, yet the rate of callers who had been thinking of suicide has decreased.

An increase in calls to the line has been attributed to a push to raise awareness, not to an influx of suicidal tendencies. A spike in call volume was noted in May 2011 when the VA changed the name from the "Veterans Suicide Prevention Line" to the "Veterans Crisis Line" and launched the "It's Your Call" media campaign.

The 2012 Suicide Data Report identified the main method for non-fatal suicide events as overdose or other intentional poisoning (51 percent of attempts between 2009-2012). Other prevalent methods included: intentional self-harm (11.5 percent), firearms (10.9 percent), sharp objects (10.3 percent), hanging, strangulation or suffocation (6.5 percent), jumping, moving object (2.3 percent), another form of self-harm (2.1 percent) and unidentified sources accounted for 5.4 percent.

PREVENTION PLAN

The VA office has evaluated the results from the report and has taken action to address key areas to locate where the disconnect is between discharge from service, evaluation, in or outpatient services and a death or attempted suicide.

A taskforce has been created to provide recommendations for innovating mental health care, taking into particular consideration President Obama's Mental Health Executive Order that focusses on suicide prevention. Intervention strategies have been developed for groups that may need additional help; women and Vietnam-era veterans are included in this area.

The Veterans Crisis Line and outreach communication strategies will continue to be evaluated. Follow up reports have been planned for later in 2013.

The Veterans Crisis Line is staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week by trained VA employees with backgrounds in mental health services. Help is available by calling 1-800-273-8255 (press 1), at www.VeteransCrisisLine.net or via text to 838255.

The Douglas County Veterans' Office assists veterans and their dependents with questions on eligibility for medical care, compensation for service related disabilities, pensions for war-time veterans and dependents and death benefits including burial at the national and state veterans cemeteries. The Douglas County office is located at 806 Fillmore Street, south of the Douglas County Library, in Alexandria. Kallstrom's office can be reached at (320) 762-3883 or by e-mail, ray.kallstrom@mail.co.douglas.mn.us.

MINNESOTA VETERAN POPULATION

Totals as of September 2012.

Douglas County - 3,169 (8.7 percent of the population)

Total - 369,295

Wartime Veterans - 272,895

Gulf War - 85,416

Vietnam Era - 130,082

Korean Conflict - 39,436

World War II - 24,748

Peacetime - 96,399

Female - 29,024

Male - 340,271

DeyCrystal Dey Crystal Dey is a staff reporter for the Echo Press. Originally from Minnesota's Iron Range, Dey worked for newspapers in North Dakota, Florida and Connecticut before returning to her home state to join the Echo Press in October 2011. Dey studied Mass Communications at Minnesota State University Moorhead with an emphasis in Online Journalism. Follow Staff Reporter Crystal Dey on Twitter at @CrystalDey_Echo.

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