VA New England Health Care held regional conference to align efforts and resources to combat veteran suicide

MANCHESTER — The Department of Veterans Affairs’ No. 1 clinical priority is to eliminate suicide among veterans.  As part of the department’s ongoing efforts, VA New England Healthcare recently held a conference to share resources and insights from combat veterans and experts, and collaborate to better arm  communities to end suicide among veterans.  

“Women veterans are 1.8 times more likely to die by suicide than non-veteran females. The rate of suicide is 1.4 times higher among male veterans when compared with non-veteran adult men. Male veterans ages 18-34 have the highest rates of suicide and male veterans ages 55 and older have the highest count of suicide. One to two service members die by suicide each day, and 123 Americans die by suicide each day.  The world-wide rate of suicide is one person every 40 seconds,” said Keita Franklin, LCSW, PhD, executive director suicide prevention at the VHA Office of Mental Health. “No single organization can tackle suicide prevention alone.” 

As the keynote speaker, Franklin spoke to the value of partnerships, safe messaging and the need for all to take an action-oriented stance in the fight to put an end to suicide.   

The program included presentations from combat veterans Richard Barbato, MSW, 82nd Airborne Division, Iraq, acting management analyst at VHA Readjustment Counseling Service, Office of Planning and Policy, and Ryan Pitts, Medal of Honor recipient, 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team, Afghanistan, who presented "The Road Home: Interdicting Suicide Risk by Strengthening Our Communities."

They shared their personal experience with readjustment and loss, and the importance of community connection.    

Retired Army Cpt. Ray Gilmore of Conway, also a combat veteran, shared his story of service which included his personal battle with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).  “Like many others, I denied the diagnosis.  I was a ranger, sapper, airborne and mountain qualified, combat advisory — there was no way, that I had PTSD,” Gilmore said. 

Gilmore’s story highlighted the impact people had made by being there for him. Today his work is to recover and be there for others. “Getting up to speak to a group of strangers about my journey and my struggles, that is hard. And, I hope that it made a difference,” he said. 

Others in attendance or who presented included Lisa Lehmann, MD, PhD, FACP, chief medical officer for the VA New England Network Healthcare System, and Amy Cook, team leader for the N.H. Governor’s Challenge to prevent suicide. Leadership from Manchester, White River Junction and Togus VA Medical Centers, as well as community providers, veterans, professors and faith-based leaders were also in attendance. In all, there were 170 participants.  

“My hope is that you leave today feeling inspired and empowered that we as citizens can share a common purpose to make a difference,” said Shara Katsos, VISN 1 deputy lead for the Strategic Initiative for Suicide Prevention and deputy homeless coordinator for VA New England.

Katsos served as the event’s emcee and said, "Over the last seven years, we have significantly reduced the number of homeless veterans in New England as a community, and I know we can do this.”  

Every day approximately 20 veterans die by suicide. Of those 20, approximately six have enrolled in the VA. The VA's aim is to serve all who served.

If you are a veteran, service member, National Guard or Reserve member, there is support, no matter what you are experiencing. Veterans can enroll at va.gov/health-care/apply/application/introduction or at a local VA medical center. The VA also provides help and guidance for loved ones, family and friends of veterans. 

Call the Veterans Crisis Line for free confidential support at (800) 273-8255 (Press 1) at any time, day or night. You can also text at 838255. For more information and support go to veteranscrisisline.net.

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