The number of veterans committing suicide has gone down significantly in the area served by the Roseburg Veterans Affairs Medical Center since 2017, but there has been an uptick in calls to the VA’s crisis line since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
So there’s both good and bad news for Suicide Prevention Month this September.
In 2017, the veteran suicide rate for this area, which stretches from Eugene to Northern California and includes the Southwest Oregon Coast, was above 50 per 100,000 veterans.
Based on the statistics from 2020 so far, the rate appears to have dropped dramatically, to around 15 per 100,000.
It might be even lower if not for the pandemic. The VA has seen about a 16% increase in calls to its crisis line since March.
Roseburg VA Suicide Prevention Coordinator Kurt Rossbach established a suicide prevention program for the Spokane VA Medical Center in 2007, and moved to Roseburg in February 2017 to help develop the suicide prevention program here.
Rossbach has a background as a mental health therapist and a history of growing up on Air Force bases because his father served. He said he has always admired veterans, and he has set his goal for helping them high.
“The hope is that we can reach a point where we have zero suicides, that’s the hope. So everything we do in terms of our efforts in our suicide prevention program is directed towards that goal. Will we ever get there? I hope so. And we’re getting close,” he said.
Roseburg VA Director Keith Allen had praise for his staff members who continue to work on reducing those numbers. Working with mental health patients is a noble profession, he said.
“I’m glad that they’re there to do that because they do provide a critical service to our veterans and I’m very proud of them,” he said.
But he also said the VA doesn’t reach all those veterans, many of whom are not signed up for VA service.
And that’s where the rest of us come in.
“We need the community’s help. So that’s one of the things that we like to accentuate, especially during Suicide Prevention Month, is how important it is for the community to help us reach those veterans that aren’t coming here,” Allen said.
Rossbach said one of the most important things to do if you are concerned that a veteran may be at risk is to ask them if they are thinking of killing themselves.
“You can simply say something like this: ‘Have you been thinking about just going to sleep and not waking up?’” he said.
“That would be one not-so-direct way of asking the question, but it might be easy for people to answer because answering these questions may not be easy for a person,” he said. “They may feel very embarrassed to tell people that they’re thinking about killing themselves. So you want to make it as easy as possible for them to answer that question.”
Next, determine whether they have made a plan and taken steps toward carrying it out, Rossbach said.
If the veteran is at immediate risk, for example if they have taken pills or have a firearm they say they’re going to use, call 911.
Otherwise, there are additional resources available. Veterans at risk can be brought into the urgent care at the VA for help, whether or not they are currently signed up as a VA patient.
There is also a hotline that can be called by the veteran or by friends or family members who are concerned that a patient is at risk. That number is 1-800-273-8255, Press 1; Text 838255; for the deaf or hard of hearing, call 1-800-799-4889. Or chat online at https://www.veteranscrisisline.net/get-help/chat
Several factors put veterans at increased risk for suicide. These include clinical depression, loss of a loved one, chronic pain and post-traumatic stress disorder.
“Sometimes when people have encountered a psychological trauma — and this could be through combat, this could be through some type of an accident they had, this could be through some kind of experience where they were assaulted, sexually or otherwise — these kinds of traumas can persist in their impact on a person. And due to the pain that’s related to the trauma they may become suicidal as a way of escaping from that pain,” Rossbach said.
Isolation is another concern, and a key factor in the rise in crisis line calls during the pandemic.
The key to helping the suicidal patient get better is to make a connection with them, Rossbach said.
“Every veteran who’s reached a place where they’re thinking about ending their life and not being here anymore has a story to tell. We want to be there to hear that story, so that veteran knows there is someone who is listening to them,” he said.