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'Bring up suicide' and other tips to talk to veterans struggling with mental health

Posted at 7:54 AM, Nov 28, 2023
and last updated 2023-11-28 09:54:32-05

COLORADO SPRINGS — Suicide is a complex issue that has many contributing factors but as a whole, active-duty members of the military and veterans experience suicide at 1.6 times the rate of non-veterans, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Given that Colorado Springs has among the highest veteran populations per capita in the country. As the home to multiple military installations and support services, we lose more veterans to suicide than any other part of the state. Those closest to the issue are hoping to offer tips on how to support someone in your life who may be struggling to find the will to live.

It’s a tough topic to discuss. And that’s exactly why News 5 wanted to address it, in the hopes of further breaking down the stigma.

According to the El Paso County Coroner's office, one-fourth of the people who took their own lives in 2022 in the county had a history of military service and more than half of all suicide victims reported a history of suicidal thoughts.

The numbers are sobering. In Colorado Springs, 194 people died of suicide last year, according to the El Paso County coroner's office. Of those, 49 were former or active military members. And it’s likely that in each of their lives was someone who suspected they could be struggling.

"I think we can all recognize someone who's very, very, very mentally ill. It's harder to recognize that person that you've seen every day for years, and now just something seems off or, you know, they're going through a tough time," said El Paso County Coroner Dr. Leon Kelly.

The research Kelly and his team conduct into the circumstances that led to a veteran’s suicide can help identify missing resources in the springs that could save others.

"Suicides are unique in that the more we know about what went wrong, the better equipped we are to prevent these same things, either from identifying folks with risk factors, getting intervention to them, seeing which groups are struggling the most, and maybe focusing efforts specifically on them, and creating environments that are safer for those people until you can get them through that acute crisis," Kelly said.

One of those environments is the Pike's Peak Suicide Prevention Partnership downtown where Cass Walton runs the center which offers connection opportunities like group meet-ups, grief support yoga, and one-on-one counseling.

"We want them to know about the resource. And we also don't want them to be scared away by the name suicide prevention. I think when people hear those words, they think crisis. But I want them to focus on prevention because suicide prevention starts way before we ever say the word suicide," Walton told News 5.

Oftentimes members of the military pride themselves on being independent and self-sufficient; trained to problem solve, not to ask for help, Walton said.

"And so we do a lot of awareness around the fact of just like, 'Think through your symptoms. Well, what's the symptom?' Anything that's impacting your ability to follow your normal routine. You know, is it hard to get out of bed? Are you feeling like you want to tear someone's head off ... And understanding you don't have to live like that. No one expects you to. We wouldn't want you to fix your own strep throat. Right? And so no one expects you to know how to fix your own mental health. It makes sense to ask for help," she said.

Those struggling with suicidal thoughts are not alone. After a decline in 2019 and 2020, the Centers for Disease Control found suicide deaths rose by 5 percent in 2021 and further increased in 2022 with 49, 449 people taking their own lives that year.

It's why the CDC lists suicide as a leading cause of death among all Americans and it says there are common risk factors for those considering ending their lives, including relationship issues, chronic health problems, legal issues or substance abuse problems.

"Those are the big categories. When you have someone in your life who is struggling with those things, those are the people who are at greatest risk, particularly if they have an acute stressor like the end of a marriage or the final issue with their substance abuse where they get arrested. Those are the folks that are at that moment at the highest ris," Kelly said.

It's the moment when those around them, who are paying attention can step in and offer resources to help them out of a tough time.

"We always say like, just be honest. You can let someone know, 'I'm having this conversation with you because I care about you.' And you could even say, 'I'm really terrible at talking about feelings and hard things. That shows you how much I care because I'm willing to try and have this conversation with you because I'm worried about you,'" Walton said.

Walton suggests having some resources in mind where your loved one can seek help or offer to call or text 988 with them. The Veterans Crisis Line is option 1 when you call. The National Suicide and Crisis Lifeline has survivor stories, talking points and other resources on its website.

"A lot of people think, 'If I bring up suicide, I'll plant that seed, and I don't want to talk about it because I don't want them to think about it.' If someone's at risk of suicide, they're already thinking about it. And what research shows us is that if you ask about it, what happens most often is that they get this sense of relief like, 'Oh, I can finally talk about it.' And that is really important. And it's one of the most life-saving things that we can do," Walton said.

Walton offers one way to start a conversation with someone who appears to be using substances to cope, starting by expressing that you're worried about them.

"And the most common response you're going to get is, 'I'm fine, thanks for asking,' or 'I'm good.' And I would just bring it up in a non-judgmental tone, like, 'I don't think someone who is drinking x amount is fine. What I see is you trying to feel differently, and I'm just wondering if we can find a more supportive way for that to happen. … so could we try something else,'" Walton suggested.

Both Walton and Kelly also stress the importance of firearm storage. Unlike any other way to take your life, a gunshot is immediate. So creating any barriers to that action, by placing a gun in a safe, under lock and key or even storing the ammunition separately can present a veteran time to reconsider.

"So that if I am that person who's living at this baseline of I'm trying to find my way, I'm feeling a little lost. I'm feeling a little unsure. I also have not been cultured to seek help and then something terrible in my day happens. I want there to be a pause before that person can access a firearm and make a very permanent decision for a temporary problem," Walton said.

Of the 194 suicides in El Paso County in 2022, 119 of them were done using a firearm, according to coroner’s office data.

"When someone is going through that, their window of tolerance is so small. It takes a very, you know, immediate situational crisis to push someone to a place of crisis," she said.

In investigating a veteran’s suicide, Kelly’s team will research whether the victim had a history of post-traumatic stress or a traumatic brain injury which can help the victim’s family to receive military benefits. They also report their findings to the health department which can result in grants that fund additional community resources for vets.

"I think that there are probably few causes that I think all of us would agree on more than making sure that these folks, these valuable members of our community really do have the support beyond just words, right? Support in this community to help them deal with the struggles that many of them have," Kelly said.

Anyone can get a free gun lock from the Pikes Peak Suicide Prevention Partnership,Colorado Springs Police, or the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office. There are also multiple places you can store a firearm temporarily if you're concerned about having it easily accessible.

If you or someone you know is struggling with your mental health, as many do over the holidays, call or text 988.