Texas Army retiree volunteers to fight suicides by military vets

VICTORIA, Texas (AP) — Michael Allen woke up on a recent Monday to messages from old Army buddies saying they had lost another one.

Six veterans in his unit have committed suicide after returning home from war, including the chaplain and chaplain’s assistant.

The combat soldiers in this unit were deployed to Iraq in 2008. Allen was a platoon sergeant.

“You go from somebody watching your back 24/7 and then it’s not there,” he told The Victoria Advocate (http://bit.ly/1TDd4DV).

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An often-cited and alarming statistic states 22 U.S. service veterans take their lives every single day.

For many veterans, it’s difficult to transition back into civilian life after seeing war.

“I try not to lose any more,” Allen said in his office, which is in the Crossroads Area Veterans Center.

The veteran service center in the Dr. Pattie Dodson Public Health Center opened in November.

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Allen points out a photo on a bookshelf of him and a friend whom he lost to suicide a couple of years ago.

He said it wasn’t until after his friend’s death that he found out they both had the same deep, dark thoughts.

“For me to try to deal with it all, I just try to stay busy,” he said.

Allen retired after 20 years in the U.S. Army.

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“The big thing is knowing they have to find a new identity,” he said.

In the military, there’s a pecking order, and you know where you stand, he said.

But veterans in their 20s are told they can’t work and they are disabled, he says.

“You have to do something to make yourself feel just as important as you were in the military,” Allen said.

Raised in Seadrift, he said he returned home and people had changed, or maybe they didn’t.

He’s seen a psychiatrist probably 75 times since he retired in 2011, he said.

He’s been through divorce and at one time owned a bar until he found his current position as a peer counselor.

As a volunteer coordinator for the Military Veteran Peer Network, he works to help connect veterans with services such as benefits, housing, employment and counseling.

His work encouraging veterans to meet for social outings proves to be therapeutic because it is a safe way for them to get out of isolation.

Victoria has veterans’ yoga, equine therapy, cigar nights, kickball and weekly group meetings at the mall.

Allen said the veterans at these events don’t always swap war stories.

Veterans of all military branches and eras are able to come together for camaraderie knowing everyone there understands what they are going through.

One recent week when he talked to his friends from that unit, they agreed they should check up on each other more often — before someone else dies.

Often suicide leaves friends and family members wondering what they could have done to prevent the death.

“I think the solution is having more people in peer positions,” Allen said.

But of course, a combination of individual, relational, community and societal factors contributes to the risk.

Suicide touches all ages and backgrounds and all racial and ethnic groups in all parts of the country.

Yet, some populations are at an even higher risk.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness estimates 90 percent of those who die by suicide have an underlying mental illness.

Those at risk also include those who have lost a loved one to suicide, don’t have access to mental health care and have easy access to lethal weapons.

“It’s a widespread problem. It’s preventable death,” said Alicia Vasquez, a registered nurse who works for Gulf Bend Center in Victoria.

Vasquez oversees the center’s Zero Suicide initiative — a state training program aimed to prepare health center staff with the specific tools and strategies to improve identification, treatment and support services in suicide care.

“Basically the theory is that no death by suicide is acceptable,” she said.

When a person expresses a plan to commit suicide, they are hospitalized.

While this helps the person in an immediate crisis situation, she said, it doesn’t treat the underlying problem.

Part of the challenge of addressing the topic of suicide is the stigma, she said.

Vasquez said feelings of isolation are a big risk factor.

Many people have friends and family whom they can call and talk to about things that trouble them, she said.

“If somebody doesn’t have that, they’re more likely to act on destructive behaviors,” she said.

There’s also research that shows media coverage of suicides has a role in causing clusters of copycat suicides among young adults.

For ages 10-34, suicide is the second leading cause of death according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Hege Riise, director of counseling, health and wellness at University of Houston-Victoria, said more students are coming forward for counseling services and reporting suicidal attempts and ideation.

Riise said this is considered a positive trend because more students are seeking help.

In fall 2015, 21.5 percent of their clients reported they had attempted suicide at least once in their lifetime, and 3.5 percent reported that suicide attempt was within the past month.

The university received a Garrett Lee Smith Suicide Prevention grant funded by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration in 2014.

The funding allowed the department to proactively address the issue of suicide with a task force and funded a full-time position.

One of the Jags For Life project goals is to train faculty, staff and students to respond to student crises effectively.

She said they should be able to ask a person whether they are thinking about dying without judgment and then refer them to get help.

More than 400 people on campus, employees and students, have been trained.

“We’re by no means done training,” she said.

There had been attempts on campus, but no completions, Riise said.

“We want to save lives,” she said. “Getting treatment is important.”

She said among her students, she’s seen how counseling and an adequate dosage of medication helps.

There is always a counselor on duty for after-hours phone calls involving mental health crises, she said.

“These are our students,” she said. “We have a responsibility to them.”

She said sometimes they find out about one attempt a semester, and other times it’s twice in one day.

The counselors also work to normalize the grief process for students coping with a loss.

“There’s never one reason for why someone attempts suicide,” she said. “It’s much more complex than that.”


Information from: The Victoria Advocate, http://www.victoriaadvocate.com