I recently re-reviewed the most up-to-date suicide data report on veteran and American suicide deaths – this is a report that I oversaw the development and execution of when I led the VA’s Suicide Prevention Office, so I know it well. The report was published in 2016, revised in 2017, and utilized data from 2001-2014. It’s from this report that we get the “20 veterans a day die by suicide daily” statistic.
There are so many important data points and risk factors that we need to consistently be aware of when we work with veterans and family members who may be at risk for suicide. And much of this data may seem to contradict each other at times. Wrapping our head around who is at risk for suicide can be challenging and scary. For many of us, there is that fear of having “missed something” if there is a potential to lose a client, a friend, a loved one to suicide.
At the same time, we at CVN must remind ourselves that what we do within our clinics on a day-to-day basis is continuous suicide prevention. We should be constantly mindful of clients who may be in immediate crisis. Always. Access to care for them is paramount to ensure that they remain safe during the short-term.
Still, I will always argue that, as important as immediate mental health care access, suicide hotlines, and emergency rooms are (and, boy, are they!), we also need to maintain focus on caring for clients and intervening with them before they reach a crisis. Before the first punch is thrown. Before the family breaks apart. Before the addiction takes hold. Before life becomes hopeless.
And this is what we do each and every day at CVN. Don’t get me wrong: we will always see clients who are in crises. But we also teach people about how to cope with anxiety. We teach parents how to care for their sullen teenager. We provide space for clients to grieve for friends they lost in combat. We talk with family members at outreach events about how to bring their loved ones into care. We adjust medications so that our clients can sleep without nightmares. We make sure that the data that is entered on each client is accurate and complete so that future care can be best informed by past care.
By doing all of these things and more, CVN is reaching so many people before crises occur using quintessential upstream approaches. Our clinics will be doing everything that we can to help keep our veterans and their families safe. And there are, in my opinion, very few missions more extraordinary than that.
By Caitlin Thompson, PhD
Vice President, Risk Management & Program Evaluation