NY lawmakers urged to up funding to stem veteran suicides
The (Albany, N.Y.) Times Union
ALBANY, NY — Veterans and mental health advocates called on state lawmakers Tuesday to expand funding for peer-to-peer counseling and family support programs to help stem the rising tide of suicides by former members of the armed services.
Barbara Beebe of Broome County, the mother of 46-year-old Afghanistan War veteran and father of two who shot himself in January, left the hearing room in pained silence after describing her son Bruce's struggle with life after deployment and two rocky marriages.
"The misery, what he was going through — I can't even envision the sadness in his heart," Beebe, an Air Force veteran herself, told the joint panel of the Assembly's standing committees on Veterans Affairs and Mental Health. "That last minute before he pulled that trigger, I can't even envision what was going through his mind."
Beebe's son spent two decades in the Air Force and New York Army National Guard. The Endicott woman urged the panel to do more to spread the word of the services available to veterans and their families who often struggle alongside them.
Earlier, John Javis, chairman of the Veterans Health Alliance of Long Island, called for an expansion of resources like the Pfc. Joseph Dwyer PTSD Peer-to-Peer Veterans Counseling Program, which has been offered as a pilot in about a dozen counties, including Saratoga and Rensselaer.
Javis said the program aims to sidestep the stigma that often attaches to those in the military community who seek mental health help. It sets up small, anonymous support groups for those struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder. The groups are made up of fellow veterans.
In the last quarter of 2012, nine Iraq and Afghanistan veterans on Long Island took their own lives or died in the grip of drugs or alcohol addiction. The national average has risen to about 22 veteran suicides a day, Javis said.
Javis said many younger vets fear that seeking help will jeopardize their chances at future careers in law enforcement or firefighting. And they're turned off, he said, by Veterans Affairs medical centers' heavy reliance on medication.
Assemblyman John T. McDonald III, a Cohoes Democrat who also runs his family's pharmacy, said he shared that concern.
"I'll be the first to tell you that medication is not always the answer," he said. "It's about having the proper support systems."
Glenn Liebman, CEO of the Mental Health Association of New York State, touted the success of programs like SafeTALK, a layman's course in suicide prevention, that he said has empowered military families to recognize warning signs from their loved ones.
"It needs to get out into the public," Beebe said. "The jeeps they fix faster than our guys."