More U.S. Soldiers Died By Suicide Than On The Battlefield In 2012
September 5, 2012 1:13 p.m.
Dawn Miller, is Suicide Prevention Coordinator for the Veterans Administration of San Diego
Richard is a U.S. Army veteran of deployments in both Iraq and Afghanistan, who has survived suicidal depression with the help of the VA.
ST. JOHN: You're listening to Midday Edition here on KPBS. I'm Alison St. John in for Maureen Cavanaugh. More U.S. soldiers have died from suicide this year than on the battlefield. Reports of vets committing suicide in San Diego show that the majority were from previous war, particularly Vietnam. But the late of the report shows that vets who reach that point of desperation are as likely to be recent vet, post-911. It seems the current wars of our time are beginning the cycle, where for some people coming home is not really coming home. What can we do to stem this tide? Dawn Miller is the suicide prevention coordinator for the veterans' administration here in San Diego on the line with us. Thanks for joining us.
MILLER: Thank you, Alison.
ST. JOHN: And Richard who is a veteran, and survived suicide and we'll hear his story. Thank you for being with us.
RICHARD: No problem. Thank you.
ST. JOHN: So MILLER, let's start with you. You're part of a small team that acts as a safety net for people with suicidal thoughts. How small is your team?
MILLER: There's three of us. Three women. Two are located here at the medical center in La Jolla, and our third is at our clinic in mission valley.
ST. JOHN: And how many vets are on your case load in any one day?
MILLER: Currently we have about 115 veterans on our high-risk list for suicide.
ST. JOHN: Do you feel overwhelmed most of the time?
MILLER: We do our best to stay healthy, take care of one another, be supported by one another, and the medical center, and do what we can to make sure the veterans are taken care of.
ST. JOHN: So what stood out for you with this latest report that you did on suicides, both attempts and successful attempts in San Diego?
MILLER: Well, I think what's glaring is that the numbers of attempts occurring between the age range of 20-49 really is who we need to be focusing on. And those are the newly returning veterans, and veterans of the gulf war.
ST. JOHN: I remember the last time we spoke with you a couple years ago, you were saying that actually most of the people coming to you now for help were older vets. But that's changing, right?
MILLER: It is changing. San Diego has a huge number of newly returning veterans. And we have had an influx of enrollment of younger veterans. So I think that it makes sense that the people that we're seeing most of now are the new veterans, new younger veterans.
ST. JOHN: What do you think has triggered the call for most of these veterans?
MILLER: Well, I think that they return and life isn't what it was before they enlisted and were deployed. I think they are experiencing challenges, mental health challenges, and challenges in their family situation, challenges financially. And I think that with the amount of education and the attempts at destigmatizing suicide and getting mental health treatment, they're willing to reach out for help.
ST. JOHN: Richard, I'd like to bring you in. Am you served two deployments. Can I ask, how old are you now?
RICHARD: I'm 26 now.
ST. JOHN: Okay. How old were you when you first deployed?
RICHARD: When I first deployed, I was 20.
ST. JOHN: Right. So tell us a little bit. Did your problems that led to you asking for help from the VA, did your problems start as soon as you get back from being deployed?
RICHARD: Yeah, it happened in about two months when I first returned from Iraq. I started to experience some of the symptoms of PTSD and depression. But my biggest struggle was admitting to myself that I had a problem.
ST. JOHN: Right. So how long would you say you struggled with them by yourself?
RICHARD: For years. Shortly after I returned from Iraq, I was struggling with the sense of -- I really just kept everything to myself. I didn't really let anybody in on what was going on.
ST. JOHN: How did they manifest? Was it sleep? Was it thoughts? What were you going through?
RICHARD: It was a number of things. I started to get agitated around a large group, numbers of people. I wouldn't sleep really well. Normally I didn't remember any of my dream, but there were numerous times where I would wake up in sweat, and my heart beating. It was just -- more emotional symptoms, really.
ST. JOHN: Right. How did you work with them? How did you try to deal with them on your own?
RICHARD: I tried to ignore it. I tried to ignore the problem. I thought it would just go away over time, which wasn't the case.
ST. JOHN: It didn't go away. Did you have much contact with other veterans?
RICHARD: Of course. I'm still in for a while. So I work with them constantly, which did help just being around them.
ST. JOHN: Was it more difficult after you left the army?
RICHARD: Yeah, it was. I felt like my civilian friends and my family, they didn't really understand what I went through, it's kind of hard to explain.
ST. JOHN: Right. Did you find yourself trying to explain? Or did you really feel like that wasn't appropriate for you?
RICHARD: They would ask questions about my experiences. But I found myself holding back a lot of information. Either to spare them the gruesome details, and to stop myself reliving them.
ST. JOHN: What was it that actually triggered you to reach out to the VA, and how long was that after you came back?
RICHARD: I came back from Afghanistan about 13 months ago. And most recently in the VA, three weeks ago. And I was discharged from the army last December.
ST. JOHN: So it's very recently that you've come to the VA for help?
ST. JOHN: Had you reached the point where suicide was an option?
RICHARD: I myself actually never attempted suicide. Luckily, one of my roommates of at home at the time. And he was there to stop it before it got real bad. He was the one who told me go to the VA hospital. And I said yes. At that point I realized that I needed help. I couldn't do it on my own anymore.
ST. JOHN: Somehow before that, you always thought you'd do it by yourself.
RICHARD: Yeah. I always felt like just admitting that I had a problem -- I felt like I was lost somehow, they would let the world end. By admitting that I had PTSD and other forms of depression.
ST. JOHN: Interesting that you thought if you talked about it that might make it more real. So that meant that you avoided talking about?
RICHARD: Yeah, it absolutely did. I would avoid questions or quickly answer the question and change the subject. But I really didn't like talking about it with my friends and family.
ST. JOHN: So what happened at the VA? What was the most helpful thing when you went to them for help?
RICHARD: They listened. I felt like they didn't judge me at all. But they just seemed like they really cared about me. Treated me like a person instead of just another patient on a chart. They really listened to everything I had to say. And I think that's what helped the most.
ST. JOHN: How long did it take before you got a response to your request for help in this case?
RICHARD: As soon as I was in the hospital, it was almost right away. I met with a doctor, the psychiatrist, and after leaving the hospital, I was in constant contact with somebody from the VA, a video appointment, or them calling checking up on me.
ST. JOHN: And MILLER, I'd like to bring you back in here. Richard obviously like so many, struggled alone for so long.
ST. JOHN: And then came to you. I mean is that pretty typical? Do you feel like most of the people that you see have been through that kind of struggle?
MILLER: Many, many people. In Richard's case, his close friend contacted the national veterans' crisis line at 1,800,273-2 five five. And they provided the phone number for our program. And the friend contacted my colleague who helped the friend and Richard get the treatment they needed. She met them at the entrance. She escorted them to the emergency room. She got them connected to the right people. And from there, Richard was able to receive the treatment he so badly needed. This is unfortunately a situation we hear about and deal with on a weekly basis.
ST. JOHN: And Richard, this was only three weeks ago. How much support do you feel you have ongoing? Because presumably this was a crisis that you've come through. But what do you need and are you getting it for the future?
RICHARD: Yeah, I'm getting support from everywhere, actually. My friend, my family, from the VA. I always knew they cared. But now that they know what I'm going through, they just show it a lot more. They constantly ask how I'm doing, if there's anything I need, they never hesitate to call to ask. The VA has been a great help. With the medication and just therapy.
ST. JOHN: You mentioned medication, which is obviously a part of the treatment here. MILLER, is medication something that some people resist? Is it partly a resistance to taking medication that means they don't come in for help earlier?
MILLER: Not everybody wants to take medication. We try to normalize the thoughts about taking medication. If someone is suffering from diabetes or hypertension, they would need something to monitor, help maintain their health. So we try to normalize that when we talk to the veterans over the phone and encourage them to get treatment. But I think it's so important that not only are they prescribed medication if necessary but that they get the therapies and treatments that they need for their depression or their PTSD or the support of case management or the support of other veterans. I think it's all in combination with one another that's helpful.
ST. JOHN: Well, we have thousands, tens of thousands of veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars living here in San Diego. How are you staffed to deal with the number that may be suffering from these symptoms?
MILLER: Well, they just hired new mental health workers, social worker, psychiatrists, psychologists, to help with the influx of new patients. Also there's a term management team. Social workers and crisis intervention people like our program. There's psychologists that are trained in evidence-based treatments for PTSD and depression and anxiety. We're doing our best to get the treatment that we need and keep them engaged.
ST. JOHN: There are probably so many family members who are aware that their veteran is suffering and can't seem to help. Do you have any words that could -- of advice for family members?
RICHARD: Just always be there to listen. I think that's one of the most important things.
ST. JOHN: But you yourself say you didn't feel like talking about it before.
RICHARD: Right. Just knowing I guess that the family member just let the veterans know that they're there, that they do care. Even though they can't quite understand what we went through, I guess it's just important to know that, show the support of somehow they're there to care any way they could help, really. If it's by offering to go to group therapy with them.
ST. JOHN: Yes, so MILLER, do you feel that the veterans' administration has the resources to not only react when a crisis occurs but also the followup for the thousands of concerns who are living in our community?
MILLER: I believe the resources are there. I think we just need to get the veterans connected and we can get them set up with the treatment that they need. Yeah, I do believe the resources are available here in San Diego.
ST. JOHN: We'll put the phone number on our website as well.
MILLER: The national veterans crisis line is 1-800-273-8255. But if they're a veteran, they can push 1, and they will be directed to specialists that can then connect them to our program. They can -- family members can call, veterans can call, friends of the veterans can call. We have had calls from active duty service members and concerned neighbors. We get all different kinds of calls and follow up with each and every call we receive, and every referral that comes through the crisis line.
ST. JOHN: Thank you both for giving us just a glimpse into the work that you're doing. And Richard, thank you so much for coming in and sharing part of your story with us.
RICHARD: Thank you as well.
ST. JOHN: We wish you the best of luck. And MILLER Miller, the suicide prevention coordinator for the VA, thank you so much for joining us.
MILLER: Thank you.