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VA medical center in Michigan working to combat veteran suicide

Saginaw Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

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By CHRIS EHRMANN | The Bay City Times, Mich. | Published: February 9, 2019

SAGINAW, Mich. (Tribune News Service) — For the past 11 years, the Aleda E. Lutz Veteran Affairs Medical Center in Saginaw has worked with veterans across mid-Michigan to help them with mental health issues, addiction and preventing suicide.

"Of all the veterans that we serve, almost 22 percent have mental health issues, and with that, it puts our veterans at relatively high risk for suicidal thoughts (and) suicidal behavior," said Barbara Bates, chief of staff and acting medical director of the facility.

The center, which cares for over 36,700 veterans in the 35-county area they serve, has had a suicide prevention program implemented since 2008 with Sharleen Gray as a prevention coordinator since the beginning. Staff help to oversee roughly 83 veterans who are considered a high-risk for suicidal behavior.

"The program has grown exponentially," she said, adding they now have two full-time and a part-time case manager. "The VA has really adopted a philosophy of suicide being everybody's business."

Bates added that one of the startling factors staff has found out about veteran suicide is that many veterans who take their own lives are not in the agency system or attempting to get in the system.

Dr. Nazzareno Liegghio said there is still a stigma around veteran's dealing with mental health issues and they won't always talk to the medical center.

"There is a stigma of 'man up and move on'... they won't tell us for the fear of what we might do," he joked. "We encourage them to develop the veterans groups outside that are self-led. Veterans like to talk to veterans, they don't trust us."

Carrie Seward, public affairs officer for the center, provided data that shows in 2016 the suicide rate was 1.5 times greater for veterans than non-veteran adults after adjusting for age, gender and nationality.

Gray added that women veterans are also seeing an increase as well.

"There have been a couple of reasons floating around. One is the occurrence of military sexual trauma that is a big one," Gray said. "Also our female veterans are (more) comfortable with firearms unfortunately... we have done a lot to try and engage with the female veterans. They still struggle with feeling comfortable (after serving), and all the pressures of motherhood, it's just a combination."

The two types of groups staff see at the center include the older veterans from the Vietnam War and the younger veterans coming back from the Iraq War or some of the more modern conflicts.

Gray said the two age groups are between 18-34 and 55 or older.

"It depends, the numbers are greater with Vietnam veterans (but) they have a larger population but statistically, it's the younger generation," Gray said. "The first year, they are more vulnerable, they have to readjust from a very mission-focused environment to make their own decisions. It's a big challenge."

"Part of the VA's plan is to expand our eyes, ears to the outside to try and identify these patients or these veterans early," Liegghio said. "One of the big ones was the suicide prevention coordinators and case managers that have build upon the need to have a resource right then and there."

He also added that the medical center and agency is encouraging veterans to talk to other veterans and get them to open up about their difficulties to break the stigma.

If a veteran is contemplating suicide, there is a crisis line number to call: 1-800-273-8255 or send a text message to 838255 or chat online.

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