Military service occupied a prominent place at the National Indian Health Board’s consumer conference in Denver Sept. 24-27, where a separate track was dedicated to issues involving veterans like these members of the American Indian Veterans of Colorado Color Guard who presented and retired the colors. (Carol Berry)

VA, IHS Join Forces to Improve Suicide Prevention Services to Veterans

Carol Berry
10/22/12

Treatment options must be available for military veterans who need care, said Retired U.S. Army General Eric K. Shinseki, Secretary of Veterans Affairs, speaking at the National Indian Health Board’s (NIHB) 29th Annual Consumer Conference, September 24-27 in Denver, Colorado.

Accounts of American Indians’ heroism abound, including that of a soldier who flung himself on a hand grenade to save comrades and who received the Medal of Honor posthumously, he said in a keynote speech to the NIHB general assembly.

The much-decorated Shinseki offered a cautionary tale by creating a hypothetical soldier, a Lakota, who had served two combat tours in Vietnam and who developed symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) but held the common belief that “warriors are strong enough to handle the rigors of warfare” before he sought help.

In a current and positive move toward halting veteran suicides, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and the Indian Health Service (IHS) are joining forces to improve suicide prevention services, as described in sessions that were part of a Veterans Track, new this year to the NIHB conference program.

Even before the adoption of a formal agreement, the VA Office of Suicide Prevention and the IHS Division of Behavioral Health worked on reducing suicide among the American Indian/Alaska Native (AI/AN) population,  NIHB conference presenters said in a session on suicide prevention collaboration.

Males ages 20-24 have had the highest rate of suicide among the AI/AN population—47.47 per 100,000—the highest rate of all racial/ethnic/age groups in the U.S. and often the age group of returning veterans, noted presenters Krista Stephenson, VA deputy national suicide prevention coordinator, and Cleo B. Monette, Turtle Mountain Chippewa, behavioral health consultant at the Bemidji, Minnesota Area IHS.

Of 37,000 U.S. suicides per year, 20 percent are veterans, “but we suspect the number is a little higher,” they said.

A VA specialist or VA team member conducts follow-ups with veteran who have received treatment, as well as veterans or their families who are among the 650-plus callers per day on confidential veterans’ crisis lines. If the veteran calling appears to be a danger to himself or herself or others, rescue services and one of more than 300 suicide prevention specialists nationwide respond within 24 hours.

In addition, the VA service is trying to work more closely with coroners’ offices, because reported accidents may in fact be suicides, and VA is doing more outreach in rural areas in part through telemedicine, they said.

In Canandaigua, New York, 300 VA responders answer 25 phone lines, while a mental illness research, education and clinical center is in Denver.

In question-and-answer time that concluded the suicide prevention session, a Hopi woman said of the hundreds of American Indian tribes, “They all view suicide in a different way. A lot of tribes are very traditional” and federal officials should be respectful.

“They [tribal members] won’t say anything to you, but to us they’ll say, ‘They shouldn’t have come and did it like this; they should have asked first. That’s all we want—to be asked first,” she said.

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