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It’s Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, and Ky. veterans are more at risk than others

Lexington Herald-Leader - 9/29/2022

September is Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, and the nation’s military veterans are among the groups that are most at risk, with an adjusted suicide rate more than 52% greater than the non-veteran U.S. adult population, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Though the Department of Veterans Affairs released a report this month showing a near 10% decline in death by suicide between 2018 and 2020, the most recent year data was available, veterans advocates say the VA is undercounting deaths.

Beck Whipple, the suicide prevention coordinator at the Kentucky Department of Behavioral Health, pointed to several factors that converge to make military veterans especially vulnerable.

Recent figures from Kentucky’s Violent Death Reporting System indicate the state’s overall suicide rate stood at 14.6 per 100,000 people in 2019, a higher figure than the national rate for the same year, which was 13.9 per 100,000 people.

In Kentucky, according to the most recent available VA data, there were 97 documented veteran deaths by suicide in 2019. The vast majority were men, with less than 10 being female, according to the data.

From the post-traumatic stress they might experience, to the stigma suicide generally carries or the fact that most veterans are middle-aged white men – the group with the highest suicide rate – there’s a lot to unpack, Whipple said.

Whipple stresses that’s why it’s so important to have a “courageous conversation” with a friend or loved one who you may suspect is considering taking their life.

Most importantly, if they open up to you, be willing to listen, Whipple said.

“The fact that they’re talking to you about it is a gift,” he added.

Mental health crisis hotline changing to 988. Here’s more resources for those in Lexington

How to talk to someone you think may be considering suicide

The National Alliance on Mental Illness recommends several best practices, the most important of which is to resist the urge to “fix” or lighten the situation and instead ask key questions and make the person feel validated through active listening.

Ask questions like:

“How are you doing?”

“How are you getting by?”

“Have you thought of hurting yourself?”

“Do you ever think of killing yourself?

If they answer “yes” to the last two questions, ask some follow-ups:

“Have you ever tried to harm yourself before?”

“Have you ever tried to kill yourself before?”

“Have you ever thought of how you would do it?”

“Do you have a plan in place?”

Whipple encourages the public to remember “suicide for folks is often the solution to a problem and not the problem” itself.

You can get at how to help a person experiencing suicidal thoughts by asking them what triggers those thoughts and what’s helped them feel better before, or ask if they’ve ever talked to someone else who helped them feel better. NAMI echoes this in its advice.

Important follow-up questions you can ask include:

“What might make you act on these thoughts?”

“What holds you back?”

Their answers to these questions will help you determine how to help them. If a person tells you feelings of loneliness are triggering their suicidal thoughts, connection could help them feel supported, for example.

Make sure you don’t end the conversation without asking them about sources of emotional support, including whether they’ve considered seeing a professional.

Don’t make a promise to keep their feelings and plans a secret. A better approach, NAMI advises, is to offer to work with them as best as you can, but let them know their health and safety is your priority.

Seeking outside help can be vital, Whipple said, adding that these situations can be overwhelming for one confidant to deal with on their own.

One resource is the national Suicide & Crisis Lifeline, which can be reached by calling or texting 988. Whipple said the service supports not just those experiencing suicidal ideation, but those close to them who may not know how to help.

“We might need to think about who else can we get to help us,” Whimple said.

A number of mental health resources are also available in Lexington and across Kentucky.

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