Veteran who committed suicide 'had everything going for her'

By SEAN HAMILL | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Tribune News Service) | Published: April 9, 2015

PITTSBURGH (Tribune News Service) — The suicide of a Pennsylvania veteran last week in the parking lot at the Pittsburgh Veterans Affairs' H.J. Heinz facility in O'Hara was tragic because she was a young woman who seemed to have much to look forward to.

Former Army Staff Sgt. Michelle R. Langhorst, 31, of Plum served nine years in the Army, mostly as a member of the military police, before an honorable discharge in 2012.

She had graduated from Point Park University last year and recently got a job as a security supervisor at UPMC Shadyside.

"She was moving forward. She had everything going for her," said Natalie Guiler, who taught Langhorst last year in a tutorial class at Point Park. "I am devastated about Michelle's death."

But Langhorst's death stood out for two main reasons: She was female and she had been receiving behavioral health treatment at the VA for at least a couple of years.

Both categories put her in a distinct minority among the painfully large number of veterans — about 22 a day, nationally, according to one study that estimated the figure based on data from 21 states — who kill themselves.

As in the general population, the most veterans' suicides are committed by men. One study from 2001 to 2010 found that the rate of all female veterans — not just those who are part of the VA system — who commit suicide had risen by 35 percent, compared with 15 percent for male veterans, but the raw numbers remain much smaller for women.

For example, in the most recent four full years in the Veterans Affairs region that includes Pittsburgh — 104 counties in Pennsylvania plus portions of West Virginia, Ohio, New York and Delaware — VA data show 200 veterans died by suicide. Five of those were female.

But another study in 2012 showed that from 2001 to 2008, male veterans who were under the VA's care were less likely to commit suicide.

The numbers of female suicides are too small to make a similar determination, said Dr. Gretchen Haas, director of the Pittsburgh VA's Mental Illness Research Educational and Clinical Center.

"But it does look as if those VA services we provide are making a dent" in reducing suicides overall, Haas said.

In part because of that, the VA has expanded its outreach programs to try to reach those veterans who might be able to make use of the VA's mental health services, but have not done so.

One of those outreach programs began in 2007 and brought two suicide prevention social worker positions to Pittsburgh.

"What we try to do is give people hope," said Veronica Lucious, who has been a suicide prevention case worker for the Pittsburgh VA since 2009.

She spends most of her day on the phone, checking in with veterans who have been flagged either by their doctor, family or friends, as being at-risk.

"A lot of times in life, a person just needs someone to listen to them," she said.

Another grim part of their job is to investigate why a veteran in the Pittsburgh VA immediate area committed suicide, to help understand how to prevent another from occurring.

The numbers in the region have been small: two so far this year; 11 in 2014; eight in 2013 and seven in 2012.

Part of the reason that the numbers, as well as the suicide rate, here is so low compared to the large — mostly inactive — veteran population in Pennsylvania, is that there are no major military bases located nearby, said Dr. Jeffrey Peters, an associate chief of staff for behavioral health at the Pittsburgh VA.

"There hasn't been the same rates in places like Pittsburgh as in places closer to military bases like San Antonio," Peters said.

That is in part because studies also show that the suicide rate is higher for active-duty veterans compared to other veterans, he said. Other studies, however, do not show a higher likelihood of suicide for those veterans who saw combat, though that remains a popular belief.

According to recent studies of veterans who committed suicide, two main events occurred before they died.

The most common reason was that they had lost someone significant in their life, for example, either a spouse who died, or a girlfriend who broke up with them.

But the second leading reason was that they learned they were not going to succeed in reaching their military career goals, for example, because they did not pass a sergeant's exam, or their unit was eliminated in a downsizing move.

"That was surprising to me," said Peters, who has worked at the Pittsburgh VA for 29 years. "That is not what I would have expected."

It's not known what led Langhorst, who served in Afghanistan for most of a year, to grab a gun that was apparently in her car in the parking lot at the Heinz facility on March 30 and kill herself.

She had told Guiler that she was seeing a psychologist at the Pittsburgh VA as long ago as the summer of 2014 to help deal with post-traumatic stress disorder.

"But she seemed happy, and she was getting help," Guiler said. "That is the tragedy in this."

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