Albany Stratton VA, others team up to prevent veteran suicides

By ERIN JEROME | The (Oneonta, N.Y.) Daily Star | Published: January 23, 2019

(Tribune News Service) — The Salvation Army and other faith-based groups are joining forces with Veterans Affairs in a suicide prevention initiative.

Dr. Joseph Hunter, suicide prevention coordinator for the Albany Stratton VA, trained Salvation Army staff from across the Capital Region at its Albany location Tuesday in an effort to equip faith groups in regular contact with veterans who might need help.

The Albany VA has trained more than 35 faith groups since late 2017, and the effort has spread to several VA offices across the country.

Hunter said the VA is looking to those who have eyes on veterans not in their care to talk to those at risk, to recognize warning signs and to help connect them with resources and support networks. The work has included meeting with clergy across denominations, sharing an educational video and asking those who receive the training to share what they learned with others.

“We can be twice as effective when the community and VA work together,” said spokesperson Peter Potter. He noted that vets needing mental health care are automatically eligible for services for 90 days, even if they do not qualify for VA coverage, and the department will help connect those people with appropriate resources.

The VA earmarked 47.5 million to prevent veteran suicides across the nation in 2019 and named the issue its “highest clinical priority” in 2018. An estimated 20 veterans die by suicide each day, about 14 of whom are veterans who have not interacted recently with the VA.

The federal Department of Veterans Affairs failed to spend millions of dollars allocated for veteran suicide-prevention efforts in fiscal year 2018, leading to a decline in outreach activity, according to a report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office. The report found that “leadership turnover and reorganization since 2017” led to the decrease in media activities related to suicide prevention during the past two years.

The majority of veterans who die by suicide are older than 50, and a disproportionate number live in rural areas.

Delaware County has the highest rate of gun suicide in the state — the most common method used by veterans. The VA and many police departments provide free gun locks when requested and at events, and the VA is including gun safety in its suicide-prevention training, officials said.

“We went from really doing nothing to now going out and talking to people in schools and communities and veterans groups,” in the past three years, said Delaware County Veterans Service Agency Director Charles Parker. He said the office meets monthly with the Suicide Prevention Network of Delaware County, which connects with people considered to be at high risk and connects them with resources.

Veterans Service Officer Joseph Coe was appointed in May 2018 in Chenango County, which lacked a VSO for 30 years. He said he has been inundated with calls and has been busy assisting vets in registering for benefits, but has not made many mental-health referrals to a visiting counselor.

Salvation Army Capital Region Social Services Director Digna Betancourt Swingle said an Oneonta leader was among the attendees at the Tuesday training, and SA felt it was important to receive the VA training because the church and charity serves many veterans through its feeding sites, food pantries and emergency assistance.

“It gave us some really good tools to approach this,” Swingle said. “There are times the vets confide in us or we notice a change in their behavior … most of them do keep coming back, and a lot of times, when they are in a crisis situation, they will talk to staff, volunteers or officers.”

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