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Marion VA 5K brings attention to suicide prevention

  • Runners brave the cold on Saturday to run 5 kilometers and draw attention to suicide prevention for veterans.

    Runners brave the cold on Saturday to run 5 kilometers and draw attention to suicide prevention for veterans.
    Holly Kee photo

updated: 4/11/2018 12:33 PM

An overnight dusting of snow and temperatures around 28 degrees didn't stop about 30 runners from competing in a 5K run at the Marion VA Medical Center Saturday morning.

The free event was intended to draw attention to suicide, the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S. today.

According to Dale Horaz, the Suicide Prevention Coordinator at the Marion VAMC, 20 veterans die by their own hand each day in the U.S.

Even though Horaz says suicide rates and attempts among VA mental health service users have decreased, there is a largely disproportionate number of vets committing suicide as compared to the general population.

"Veterans represent about 7 percent of the total population," said Horaz, "but account for about 20 percent of suicides."

Horaz said male veterans are twice as likely as civilians of either gender to commit suicide.

"We're starting to see an increase in older vets, 70 and older," said Horaz. "These are not on anyone's radar."

Horaz said the suicide rate among female veterans is 2 times higher than female civilians.

"We have about 45,000 vets in VA care," said Horaz, "but only about 7,000 are in mental health services. That's one of every eight that still think there's a stigma to it, that they can deal with the issues by themselves."

Horaz said that his three-person team will soon increase to five, and they are committed to not only preventing suicide, but helping to educate and erase the stigma of mental health treatment.

"ReachVet rolled out in the past year," said Horaz. That program uses predictive modeling to identify veterans at risk.

"It's a national tool that scans the charts and uses specific stressors or triggers like medications, diagnosis, hospitalizations, and history of suicide attempts," said Horaz.

Educating family members and friends to recognize signs of suicidal thinking is an important facet of Horaz's team.

Those signs can include seeking access to pills and weapons, increasing drug or alcohol abuse, anxiety, dramatic changes in mood, rage or anger, acting recklessly or engaging in risky activities, giving away possessions, an increase or decrease in spirituality, and hopelessness.

Horaz said his team does a lot of outreach events to educate families about these causes and the services available.

"We also do a lot of education for VA staff," he said. "We want our staff, even the custodians and cooks, to be aware of what to do if a vet says they're going to kill themselves."

Learning to recognize and react to vets in crisis could prevent situations like the March 26 incident in St. Louis where a 62-year-old veteran took his own life in a waiting room at John Cochran VA Medical Center.

Horaz said behavioral medicine has 24-hour access. Veterans or family members can get immediate help by calling the Veterans Crisis Line at (800) 273-8255, texting 838255, calling 911, or visiting the nearest emergency room of any hospital.