June 17, 2018
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Surviving war to die in Maine

Editor’s note: This is the second of two parts about taking care of Maine veterans.

It’s an alarming trend: The number of active-duty American troops committing suicide in the first part of the year far outweigh the number of forces killed in Afghanistan. The suicide rate is at its highest in the country’s last decade of war.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs system in Maine is planning to hire six mental health professionals in the next few months to adjust to the rising demand from patients. It’s a good decision, particularly because it’s part of a larger response.

The Veterans Affairs Maine Healthcare System has doubled its number of mental health workers in the last five years, from 46 to 99. Five years ago there was one person dedicated to homeless veterans services. Now there are 12. Adding six more clinicians is part of the continued effort.

There are no reliable statistics for suicides among Maine veterans, as Veterans Affairs provides health care to only about 40,000 of more than 130,000 veterans in the state, according to Ryan Lilly, associate director of the Veterans Affairs Maine Healthcare System. But, he said, there’s no doubt that the increasing number of suicides is a big concern for every state.

The reasons for the growing rate are not fully known. Soldiers who see combat and multiple tours are especially at risk, but so are those who never deploy. Post-traumatic stress plays a role, as do problems finding work and abusing prescription drugs.

A big part of the solution is for Veterans Affairs to work with community groups to create more awareness about warning signs and available resources, as veterans often don’t turn first to Veterans Affairs for help. That means connecting with homeless shelters, police departments and clergy. It’s something the Veterans Affairs system in Maine is already doing and should continue to expand.

Reintegration efforts are particularly difficult in Maine because the state has no active bases. Military personnel in other states often can continue to work with people they know upon their return home, but Maine doesn’t have the same available support network. A soldier is often the only person in his or her town who deployed.

That’s one big reason why it’s important for veterans to get jobs: Not only do they become part of a group again, but they can maintain their personal financial situation. Many, however, find it difficult to translate their military knowledge into civilian jobs skills. That’s why it’s essential for veterans to learn how to connect their leadership and technical abilities to the potential work at hand.

Some universities are helping by teaching interview and resume-writing skills for free. The program Portland Veterans Network pairs unemployed veterans, returning from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, with business leaders who help them find jobs. Companies can keep in mind that there’s a tax credit for hiring veterans from certain qualified groups.

Another part of the solution is to institutionalize within the military the importance of seeking therapy. Commanders should never tolerate behavior that belittles those who need therapy and should emphasize that needing help is not a weakness. Soldiers may have previously not sought professional services for fear it would hurt their chances of being promoted. Eliminating that bias — through training and reprimands for ill behavior — is essential.

In Maine, it has been the practice that every soldier returning from overseas must sit down and talk with a mental health professional. It’s a smart move because no one is singled out, and those who need further care can receive it.

There are also vet centers in Sanford, Portland, Lewiston, Bangor and Caribou that provide readjustment counseling specifically for combat veterans. And if people live in a remote area or prefer to see a provider through video, there’s telemental health technology available. Veterans Affairs cannot wait for veterans to come to it; it must be where they are.

It takes both small and big ideas, civilian organizations and the government to address the suicide problem. There are no easy answers; and getting someone treatment will not always prevent a suicide. But it’s worth the hardest effort.

Have feedback? Want to know more? Send us ideas for follow-up stories.

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