A group of 25 Roseburg Veterans Affairs Medical Center employees gathered by the flagpole on the VA grounds Friday afternoon. Each of them had been impacted by the suicide of someone they cared about.
It was a solemn annual reminder of the shadow these deaths cast across the community, held before a sparsely attended suicide prevention open house.
Nationwide, 22 veterans kill themselves every day. The VA has been working to turn around those numbers, and Roseburg VA has seen a sharp reduction in the number of suicides among its patients since implementing a new strategy for working with veterans at risk.
One of the VA employees who stood by the flagpole Friday was social worker Charity Mcsperitt. Her husband, Navy veteran William Bettis took his own life Sept. 20, 2011.
“It came out of the blue,” Mcsperitt said.
He’d never spoken to her about suicide. She would later learn from an ex-girlfriend that he had made an attempt in high school, but at the time, Mcsperitt had no idea he’d ever tried it. It saddens her that he felt unable to share his pain with the people who loved him.
“He didn’t know how to have these discussions. He didn’t know where to turn,” she said.
Bettis left behind a grown son and daughter and a grandchild who was about to have a first birthday.
One of the hardest things about suicide, Mcsperitt said, is the way it can split families apart. In the aftermath, she stopped speaking to her husband’s parents and they broke off contact with both her and her children.
Another challenge she would face in the years afterward is that suicide almost began to feel like an option for her as well.
“In my darkest hours I thought maybe this is a way out,” she said.
But she had incredible support, she said, so she kept going and ultimately what happened became part of the woman she is today.
It was her husband who originally encouraged her to work at the VA. After he died, she shied away from anything to do with suicide. But when the VA began ramping up its suicide prevention efforts recently, she stepped up, and has become part of the reason more local veterans with suicidal thoughts are choosing to live.
VA Suicide Prevention Coordinator Kurt Rossbach said the number of suicide deaths among Roseburg VA patients plummeted last year, dropping by two thirds in 2018 over 2017.
They’ve done it by implementing a standard of care that’s based on scientific evidence of what works to bring veterans contemplating suicide back off that ledge.
A big warning sign a veteran is contemplating suicide is that they become withdrawn, Rossbach said. They begin isolating themselves. They stop talking to the people in their lives, or when they do talk they complain about feeling depressed or down, or unable to sleep.
The next stage is they might start making statements like that they or their loved ones would be better off if they died.
If you think a veteran or other loved one is contemplating suicide, it’s very important, Rossbach said, to ask them this question: “Are you having thoughts of suicide?”
Ask if they’ve been thinking about going to sleep and not waking up, or wishing they were dead.
He said it’s a myth that asking those questions will increase the risk. It’s the opposite. Asking the question, then listening — really listening — to the answer is the best chance of saving them.
“It gives the person the opportunity to tell you what is happening, what they are thinking about,” he said.
Keep asking questions and listening.
“You validate and support them very simply by listening to their story. Every person who has reached this place has a story to tell and you may be the first person that veteran has had to listen to their story,” he said.
The next step is to ask them to go with you to get help. Take them to the emergency room. Don’t just leave them there, but make sure you hand them directly to a healthcare professional.
Rossbach said all the staff at the VA has been trained to do those things, and that’s why the suicide numbers are down.
“We are here and we are engaged in an ongoing, comprehensive effort at reducing suicide risk among our veteran population,” he said. “What we’re doing works.”