Continuing casualties: Preventing suicide among Veterans

For some U.S. service members, the battles don’t end when they return to civilian life. Thousands of soldiers and Veterans fight a personal war with depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and chronic anxiety. Tragically, some lose their fight.

Approximately 20 Veterans per day commit suicide nationwide, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). Suicide, not combat, is the leading cause of death for soldiers deployed to fight ISIS in the Middle East. In 2014, the latest year for which records are available, more than 7,400 Veterans took their own lives, accounting for 18 percent of all suicides in the United States. The risk of suicide for Veterans is 21 percent higher than for civilian adults. The problem is particularly acute among female Veterans, whose suicide rates rose more than 85 percent between 1999 and 2010.

Reluctance to seek help

Studies have found that, as a group, soldiers and Veterans are less likely to seek professional help for mental or emotional problems. Approximately 70 percent of Veterans who took their own lives did not regularly use VA services.

“Unfortunately, among soldiers and Veterans, there’s still a stigma attached to seeking any kind of help,” said Steve Schliesman, vice president and general manager of Cognosante’s Military and Veterans Health business unit. Schliesman served in the Army for 22 years and held key senior executive service roles at the VA. He explained, “Talking about suicide openly or seeking help is seen as a weakness, and no soldier wants to display a weakness.”

Difficult transition

The transition from military to civilian life can be challenging, even for those with strong support systems at home. The pace of civilian life can seem jarringly unfamiliar, even hostile. Jobs can be hard to come by, especially when employers don’t always recognize how military training can apply to the business world. Steve Schliesman has made the transition to civilian life twice during his career, the first time as an enlisted person.

“I left the Army on a Friday as a sergeant having a squad of people that I was responsible for, along with a whole lot of equipment and operations,” recalls Schliesman. “And then I came back to the Midwest and couldn’t find a job that appreciated what I had been doing in the Army. I ended up with an entry-level construction job, working with a cement crew on a highway. It was a rough transition.”

A growing network

Fortunately, there is a growing support network for Veterans, composed of military and governmental agencies, nonprofit advocacy groups, and private-sector companies like Cognosante. Each emphasizes outreach to soldiers and Veterans who are most at risk of suicide.

All military branches have active suicide prevention programs that provide access to counseling, crisis intervention, and support for friends and family. The VA has launched a 24/7 Veterans Crisis Line, at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), which provides immediate access to mental health crisis intervention. During the past several years, the VA has hired 5,300 mental health providers and support personnel to assist with these efforts. It has also begun using predictive analytics to identify those most at risk for suicide so that it can intervene early.

Cognosante efforts

Cognosante has made a major commitment to help improve the lives of Veterans, providing meaningful support before they face a crisis. Cognosante founder and CEO Michele Kang launched the Cognosante Foundation in 2012, which has donated time, energy, and money to Veterans’ groups, including Paralyzed Veterans of America and Final Salute Inc., an organization dedicated to providing homeless women Veterans with safe and suitable housing. Kang is also cofounder and national chair of the Women Veterans Committee, which supports and mentors female Veterans. She received the 2016 Veterans Service Award from Million Women Mentors in recognition of her dedication to improving the lives and prospects of female Veterans.

Cognosante is a leader in collaborating with the VA to help the department streamline claims processing, reduce backlog, and accelerate referrals and authorizations for Veterans. In July, the VA awarded Cognosante an important two-year task award for Community Care Referrals and Authorization Software as a Service and Integration Development. The solution is an enterprise-wide system used by the VA’s Community Care staff to automatically generate referrals and authorizations for Veterans receiving care in their community.

“I’m very proud that the VA recognized us as a thought leader and trusted us to help them streamline and automate Community Care,” says Schliesman. “We’re now rapidly deploying a solution that lets Vets quickly get a referral or authorization, so they’re not waiting to get access to important services.”

Receiving medical treatment quickly is especially important for Veterans struggling with depression or PTSD. For those at risk of self-harm, it is literally a matter of life or death. September is National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, a time to redouble efforts to share resources and offer aid for those most at risk of self-harm. This month is also a reminder that preventing suicide among Veterans can start with one conversation, one caring gesture toward someone at risk that can lead them to get help. This is a battle that Veterans should not have to fight on their own.

“It’s hard to imagine anything worse than losing a soldier on the battlefield,” said Schliesman. “But even worse is losing a soldier after the fact to suicide. That’s just something we can’t let happen.”



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