Curbing military suicides

Posted June 01, 2010, at 6:40 p.m.

I had a lovely Memorial Day. I hope you did, too. I, like you, thought about our veterans, past and present. I thought about how much I love and respect them for the sacrifices they made for me, and the toll that commitment takes on them. See, at an alarming rate — and in part because of what we put them through — many more of our soldiers are killing themselves.

Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki, speaking at a suicide prevention conference in January, reminded us, “Of the 30,000 suicides in the country each year, fully 20 percent of them are acts by veterans. That means that on average 18 veterans commit suicide each day.”

Secretary Shinseki does nationally what Cheryl Morin does locally. Cheryl and her family and friends founded the JD Foundation, a not-for-profit named after her son who died by suicide. Neither Secretary Shinseki nor Cheryl is afraid to talk about the tough stuff: Saving lives requires courage.

Secretary Shinseki knows that special challenges face our brave soldiers, sailors and airmen; and he’s been shining a spotlight on those challenges so that a grateful nation can put its time, money and energy where their parades are. We must turn things around for the brave men and women who have risked it all.

Cheryl shares his concern but doesn’t focus just on our veterans who are at increased risk of suicide, but also the other 72 no-prior-service people who also take their lives each day.

Cheryl, as the mom of a suicide victim, special ambassador for Maine Youth Suicide Prevention and the director of the JD Foundation, speaks for free to any group — no matter how large or how small — about the warning signs that someone may be tempted to end his or her own life.

The first thing she teaches is that people don’t “commit” suicide. They die of it. Suicide is a symptom of a serious mental illness, and a person can no more commit suicide than they can commit cancer or heart disease.

When Secretary Shinseki talks about veterans dying at disproportionately high rates, he and Cheryl basically are talking about the same age group and type of person who sees dying as a better alternative than living.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, suicide is the 11th leading cause of death in the U.S. It’s the eighth leading cause of death among men. But for service-age men, it gets much worse, even though the suicide rate among adolescents is incredibly high: seven times the national average. That rate leaps to 10 times the national average for people age 20 to 25.

When young male adults, who have a greater propensity for suicide than any other demographic, join the military the odds of them falling victim to suicide doubles.

In fact, according to the American Journal of Psychiatry, suicide is the second-most common cause of death in the military and armored Humvees and flak jackets can’t protect our soldiers. For now, the only protection for young people, whether they join the service or remain civilians, is the kind of help Cheryl offers: increased awareness of symptoms, causes and warning signs.

Cheryl also provides training to anyone — be they drill instructors, guidance counselors or family members — so that they might better recognize and, one hopes, prevent a potential suicide in the making.

This past weekend, the JD Foundation purposefully scheduled on our Memorial Day holiday its second annual yard sale fundraiser. And in little old Abbot, Maine — population 596 — about 40 volunteers raised nearly $11,000 to keep Cheryl on the road and traveling the state educating folks about an epidemic that kills twice as many people as AIDS kills each year.

If a handful of Mainers can do that well in one weekend, imagine what they could do if the rest of us helped.

To get more information, arrange for Cheryl to speak, or if you want to help call 876-2295 or go to thejdfoundation.org. If you have Web design skills and you can help them update their website, please call now. They need you.

Think of our veterans. Perhaps together we can save someone you love, even though it may be someone you’ve never met.

Pat LaMarche of Yarmouth is the author of “Left Out In America: The State of Homelessness in the United States.” She may be reached at PatLaMarche@ hotmail.com.

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