Every suicide is a tragedy affecting families, friends and whole communities, but when everyone works together to help those in need, suicide becomes preventable. All of us have a role to play in preventing service member, veteran, and military family (SMVF) suicide.
Within the Department of Defense (DoD), the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), and the community, professional counselors play a critical role in providing support to this population. Through a community public health approach with dedicated partners and a willingness to learn and adapt to the changing needs of veterans, we can prevent suicide and help individuals live, work and thrive in the community of their choice. Because professional counselors approach mental health from a wellness perspective, they are uniquely qualified to not only support military-affiliated clients, but to advocate for wellness approaches in the communities where they live and serve.
The federal government is working diligently to address suicide in a number of different ways. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has released a number of strategies created to reduce the number of deaths by suicide, and last year, the VA published a 10-year strategic plan outlining how all parts of the country can work together to support veterans. Additionally, President Trump recently signed an executive order known as the President’s Roadmap to Empower Veterans and End the National Tragedy of Suicide (PREVENTS), which establishes a task force to engage stakeholders nationwide in suicide prevention efforts.
Using a public health approach
Suicide prevention remains the VA’s top clinical priority, but the fact remains that no one person, organization or program can do it alone. The public health approach asks all facets of the community, including mental health professionals, to work together toward a solution. The VA, as a member of the community, has a critical opportunity to meaningfully connect to community stakeholders to save neighbors, family members and friends.
Every VA facility has a suicide prevention coordinator who is asked to step out of their facilities and into their communities to build relationships with community partners that are vested and connected to service members, veterans, their caregivers and their families. Through this model, researchers, clinicians and partners collaborate for suicide prevention by identifying community issues, developing and implementing strategies to address those issues (through maximizing protective factors and minimizing risk factors related to suicide), and creating an evaluative process for those implemented strategies.
Of the 20 million veterans nationwide, less than half use Veterans Health Administration services. That makes it challenging to identify veterans who may be at risk for suicide and to connect them with mental health care professionals, peer networks, employment, and other resources known to bolster protective factors and help with coping. As large and robust of a network as the VA is, this challenge cannot be solved by the VA alone.
Community hospitals, clinics, and health care professionals across the nation play a key role in preventing suicide because they are integrated into the local fabric of the SMVF community. VA partnerships with community health care providers expand access to care to SMVF members in the communities where they live, work and thrive. In addition, not all those who die by suicide necessarily access mental health care services prior to their deaths. This means that community organizations such as veterans groups, recreational teams, faith-based centers, and myriad other community supports can serve as potential collaborators to build on suicide prevention efforts.
Part of improving access and building a public health approach is identifying those who are part of the SMVF community. For example, the New Hampshire Legislative Commission on Post-traumatic Stress Disorder and Traumatic Brain Injury created an initiative for stakeholder agencies to add a question about service member and veteran status, thus improving referral and access to services within the SMVF community. By adding the question “Have you or a family member ever served in the military?” to intake, enrollment and health history forms, counselors create opportunities to discuss military experiences and their impact on clients’ lives. This provides the benefit of informing treatment and connecting individuals to SMVF-specific resources (see askthequestionnh.com/about/why-ask). Identifying the SMVF community can also happen across varying community services, thus strengthening care coordination and supports.
In addition to asking clients about their military status, professional counselors can be particularly helpful in building the public health approach by asking the following questions:
- How is the community collecting and reporting data on SMVF suicides?
- How are the local emergency rooms collecting data on suicide attempts?
- Does the community have a strategic initiative to address SMVF suicides?
If there are no answers to these questions, counselors can work with their communities to implement more effective strategies. Communities can also implement these strategies beyond the service member and veteran populations to include caregivers and loved ones. There still is a long way to go in identifying and understanding all of the risk factors and protective factors for suicide among the spouses and children of service members and veterans.
Although the VA is expanding community care for the SMVF population, community health care providers need to develop the same level of military cultural competence as exhibited by providers within the VA. It is essential that health care providers understand the cultural issues related to military service that may give veterans mixed feelings about receiving health care. These cultural issues include:
1) Concerns that seeking care, particularly mental health care, will harm their careers, whether military or civilian.
2) Fears about how they could be perceived by others for seeking care, such as being seen as “weak” by their peers.
3) The belief that overall mission success is a greater priority than their own well-being.
In Phoenix, VA teams have partnered with the Arizona Coalition for Military Families to provide military culture training to local behavioral health providers. In Richmond, Virginia, the McGuire VA Medical Center partnered with the Richmond Behavioral Health Authority to include VA resources on the state’s behavioral health website.
In addition to building cultural competency, community health care providers need to be able to offer the SMVF population the same type of evidence-based practices provided through the VA. This may be achieved through partnering with local VA providers on trainings that build on clinical skills for suicide prevention. The VA developed a Community Provider Toolkit (see mentalhealth.va.gov/communityproviders/index.asp) to help community providers, including counselors, gain a deeper understanding of military culture.
Through the public health approach, everyone has a role to play in preventing SMVF suicide. By considering level of risk and the factors beyond mental health that contribute to suicide, communities can deliver resources and support to SMVF populations earlier, before they reach a crisis point.
Maximizing protective factors
A critical component of SMVF suicide prevention is identifying the protective factors that prevent these individuals from getting into crisis. As noted in the CDC’s Preventing Suicide: A Technical Package of Policies, Programs, and Practices (2017), there are many strategies to build up protective factors. Some of these protective factors include promoting connectedness, improving economic stability, and increasing education and awareness about suicide within the population and throughout the community. These strategies fit well into Thomas Joiner’s interpersonal-psychological theory of suicidal behavior, in which he proposes that individuals die by suicide when there is a desire and capacity to do so. He posits that a sense of isolation, feelings of burdensomeness, and an ability to engage in self-harm all correlate with increased risk of suicide.
Promoting connectedness in the military population helps to reduce a person’s sense of isolation. This strategy has two critical components: peer norm programs and community engagement activities.
Counselors in the VA leverage community partnerships, promote family engagement, and encourage those around SMVF populations to ensure they remain connected to their loved ones and peers. The Veteran Resource Locator, for instance, links veterans and their loved ones, or community providers, with programs and services in their area, both within the VA and in the community. Counselors consistently look to engage family members in veterans’ treatment to increase their support systems. Local VA facilities conduct extensive outreach in the community to form partnerships with organizations in which veterans and service members are involved. For example, in Billings, Montana, the VA and community teams developed a local veterans meet-up group to help service members stay connected to their community during transition from active duty. Group members meet regularly for cookouts and conversation.
Counselors in the community can also support efforts to improve connectedness. For example, counselors can become familiar with peer support programs in their communities or get involved in the development of such programs if none exist. If organizations exist within the community that provide opportunities for the SMVF population to engage with others while supporting their community (e.g., Team Rubicon; Team Red, White & Blue; The Mission Continues; Travis Manion Foundation), counselors can get to know who is in the organization. Counselors can provide referrals to these organizations and invite representatives to speak to their colleagues.
A suicidal crisis in a member of the SMVF population does not happen in a vacuum. Increasing economic stability is a significant protective factor in preventing suicide. As service members transition out of the military, whether they have served for four years or 24 years, the majority are young enough to be able to continue in another career. When housing, employment and finances are not stable, this can cause additional stress for this population and increase feelings of burdensomeness.
Counselors in the community can maintain a list of referral agencies that support housing, employment and financial support. These organizations play an important role in reducing SMVF suicide, whether they realize it or not. If a service member or veteran is in financial crisis, they may be in a psychological crisis too.
The VA is increasingly working to support veterans in financial distress through the Financial Assistance for High Risk Veterans program. This program, available at many VA facilities, creates a partnership between local VA facility suicide prevention coordinators and revenue staff. Should a veteran with high risk of suicide also require assistance related to financial distress, the suicide prevention coordinator would connect the veteran to revenue staff. These staff would work personally with the veteran to apply for a VA financial hardship program that best fits the veteran’s financial situation.
As counselors in the community and the VA become aware of how financial stressors are interacting with the sense of burdensomeness in their clients, they can incorporate clinical moments to discuss and assess suicide risk while also developing strategies to build economic support. Together, clinicians inside and outside of the VA can bolster the network of housing, employment and financial assistance through reviewing what is available in the community and developing strong referral processes.
Education and awareness
A third protective factor is increasing community education and awareness about SMVF suicide and suicide prevention. This is yet another area in which professional counselors can make an impact. Counselors who are familiar with suicide prevention efforts can help others become familiar with them too. Providing greater awareness in the community is important. It is also critical to educate medical professionals about the problem. A large number of those who have died by suicide saw their primary care providers a month or less before their deaths (see ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12042175). Counselors can support their communities by facilitating or promoting gatekeeper training for those serving the military-affiliated population.
The VA has invested significantly in education around suicide. VA employees take annual suicide prevention training. VA facilities also conduct extensive community outreach to ensure that partners are aware of resources available to veterans and their families.
Counselors in the community can also take the initiative to become educated on SMVF suicide. The VA has partnered with PsychArmor Institute to provide free online access to the S.A.V.E. suicide prevention training (available at psycharmor.org/courses/s-a-v-e). In addition, VA suicide prevention coordinators partner with community providers to offer in-person training to those who need it. In their role as advocates, counselors can work with local leaders to provide clinical expertise connected to community suicide prevention efforts, whether that be public awareness campaigns or participation in local SMVF suicide prevention efforts.
Minimizing risk factors
Unfortunately, no matter how much we invest in preventive efforts, the possibility still exists that a member of the military-affiliated population will experience a suicidal crisis. When this happens, the community needs to be just as prepared to identify and reduce risk factors as it is to identify and implement protective factors. Both the CDC and the VA have identified more than a dozen risk factors that may lead to suicidal thoughts and behaviors, but there are three areas where professional counselors can be especially helpful.
Access to care
Of all the risk factors and protective factors identified here, the area in which counselors are most likely to be naturally involved is improving access to safer care. When it comes to the military-affiliated population, this means improving culturally competent care, reducing barriers to care, and reducing the mental health provider shortage for those organizations that serve this population.
The VA has done much to improve access to care for veterans, including the expansion and promotion of the Veterans Crisis Line (VeteransCrisisLine.net), a 24-hour service that veterans can call, text, or chat with at any time to receive immediate support. The VA also provides same-day access for veterans in need of mental health care and has built a robust telemental health and call center network that can direct veterans to get the care they need. In addition, the VA sponsors Coaching Into Care (mirecc.va.gov/coaching), a free service that educates, supports and empowers family members and friends who are seeking care for loved ones who are veterans. In addition, the DoD expanded nonmedical mental health services for the SMVF population up to a full year after leaving active duty.
Counselors in the community must be just as ready as their colleagues in the VA to improve access to care. It is incumbent upon counseling professionals to ensure that they develop and maintain an understanding of the unique psychological challenges faced by the SMVF population and that they are available to serve those individuals who do not access care through the VA or DoD.
Community counselors also have the ability to be important advocates for the profession through mentorship, collaboration and consultation. Increasing the number of veterans and military family members who consider careers in the mental health field is an excellent way to improve access to care for this population.
Lethal means safety
One area that deserves discussion but often goes unmentioned is the need for counselors to address the ability of clients to engage in self-harm. This includes talking about lethal means safety, particularly with those in the military-affiliated population.
Veterans are more likely to die from ﬁrearm-related suicide than are those in the general U.S. population, according to the VA’s 2019 National Veteran Suicide Prevention Annual Report (see mentalhealth.va.gov/suicide_prevention/data.asp). Safe storage of lethal means is any action that builds in time and space between a suicidal impulse and the ability to harm oneself. It addresses how to be safe from any lethal means, including firearms, prescription medications, and suicide hot spots.
This topic can be sensitive, especially because veterans have experience with and are comfortable with firearms. Effective lethal means safety counseling is collaborative, veteran-centered, and consistent with their values and priorities. Although the most preferred way of preventing SMVF suicide is to keep these individuals from going into crisis in the first place, lethal means safety plans are critical to preparing for suicidal crises should they arise.
The VA has made significant efforts to impact the conversation around lethal means safety. For example, it distributes free gunlocks to veterans and provides safe medication disposal envelopes at facilities across the country. The VA also recently instituted a nationally standardized safety planning template that ensures veterans have high-quality suicide prevention safety plans. Veterans and their providers work together to complete the plans, which identify innovative and feasible actions that can be taken to reduce access to lethal means. Suicide prevention coordinators within the VA have participated in firearm shows and fairs, providing materials and gunlocks directly to gun owners in their communities through partnering with local firearm groups.
Counselors in the community must be just as informed and prepared as counselors in the VA to discuss lethal means safety. They should be aware of locations that provide out-of-home firearm storage in the community and be able to have honest discussions with clients about when and how to use these resources. Counselors can partner with other community agencies to identify these resources. For example, the Colorado School of Public Health and the University of Colorado School of Medicine at the Anschutz Medical Campus have established the Colorado Gun Storage Map, provided for those community members seeking local options for temporary, voluntary firearm storage (see coloradofirearmsafetycoalition.org/gun-storage-map).
Counselors must take the same care when it comes to storage of prescription medications. In addition, community counselors may be more able than their VA counterparts to partner with local law enforcement to identify and mitigate suicide hot spots.
A final area that counselors must address to reduce the risk of suicide in the SMVF population is postvention. Engaging service members, veterans, families, and providers after a suicide loss can promote healing, minimize adverse outcomes for those affected, and decrease the risk of suicide contagion. Postvention is critical to preventing additional suicides in the immediate social network of the person who died by suicide. Those bereaved by another person’s suicide have a greater probability of attempting suicide than do those bereaved by other causes of death. Those bereaved by another person’s suicide are also at increased risk for several physical and mental health conditions.
Community providers play a significant role in postvention. Clients who have attempted suicide are at a higher risk for future attempts unless the underlying problems that led to the attempt are addressed. Community providers are also important in addressing postvention needs in those left behind because of a death by suicide, such as the spouse and child of a service member or veteran. Whereas veterans may be served through the VA and service members may be served through the DoD, spouses and children of service members and veterans may not have access to the resources they need. This is where professional counselors in the community can offer support. For example, SAVE (Suicide Awareness Voices of Education) has excellent postvention resources for coping with loss (see save.org/find-help/coping-with-loss).
The VA has implemented processes to increase postvention efforts in its facilities. The VA provides its staff with suicide postvention guidance that can be tailored to meet the needs of each individual facility. Postvention efforts should include everyone who might have been affected by the death, including veterans, their families, and employees. Following a suicide, efforts are made to promote healing and support the deceased veteran’s family. Many local VA organizations have partnerships with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (afsp.org) and the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (taps.org/suicideloss) to provide support to veterans’ family members and friends.
Additionally, the free, confidential Suicide Risk Management Consultation Program (mirecc.va.gov/visn19/consult) is available to assist staff with training on postvention. This program provides consultation, support and resources that promote therapeutic best practices for providers working with veterans at risk of suicide. It offers tailored, one-on-one support with consultants who have years of experience with veteran suicide prevention.
Suicide prevention is everyone’s job
The strategies to prevent suicide in the SMVF population are as complex as the risk factors for suicide itself. Unlike other challenges that SMVF clients face, such as homelessness and unemployment, success in reducing suicide is not clearly defined. If clients are housed, they are no longer homeless, and if clients are employed, they are no longer unemployed. The measure of success in suicide reduction is not just the absence of suicidal self-harm, however, but the presence of a life worth living and an overall level of wellness in the client.
This is where professional counselors can play a role in their clients’ lives and in their communities. Members of the military-affiliated population have sacrificed and served, regardless of when, where and how they served. It is necessary — and possible — to serve them in return, providing them the life of wellness and stability that they desire and deserve.
For more information and resources, visit mentalhealth.va.gov and veteranmentalhealth.com. Additional resources for veterans, families, and community providers can be found at BeThereForVeterans.com and MakeTheConnection.net
Duane France is a retired Army noncommissioned officer, combat veteran, and licensed professional counselor. He is the director of veteran services for the Family Care Center, a privately owned outpatient mental health clinic in Colorado Springs, Colorado, that specializes in serving the military-affiliated population. He also writes and speaks about veteran mental health on his blog and podcast, Head Space and Timing (veteranmentalhealth.com), and writes the monthly “From Combat to Counseling” column for CT Online.
Juliana Hallows is a national board certified and professionally licensed counselor. She serves veterans, their families, and communities through the VA National Suicide Prevention Program, where she is a health system specialist for policy and legislation.
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Related reading: Counseling Today‘s September cover story, “Making it safe to talk about suicidal ideation”