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DoD, VA roll out new suicide awareness effort

Sep. 10, 2012 - 04:47PM   |   Last Updated: Sep. 10, 2012 - 04:47PM  |  
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The Defense and Veterans Affairs departments announced an awareness campaign, "Stand by Them: Help a Veteran" as part of a national strategy on suicide prevention unveiled Monday by the Obama Administration and the National Action Alliance on Suicide Prevention.

With troops and veterans identified as being at higher risk for suicide than the general population, the campaign stresses the influence family members, friends, colleagues nearly anyone who knows a veteran can have in stopping a suicide.

VA and DoD hope the public service announcement "">Side by Side" will spur veterans to seek mental health care.

"We've learned that we still miss many opportunities to prevent suicide if only we had someone into care earlier in the process. We hear time and again after a suicide [that] family members, coworkers, friends knew something wasn't right or [that] the veteran was having difficulties," VA Deputy Secretary Scott Gould said during a news conference announcing the national strategy.

The joint awareness campaign aims to coax those who know troubled service members or veterans to call the Veterans Crisis Line, 1-800-273-8255, to get information and alert VA for a possible intervention.

"Nothing is more fundamental to our success than communication, reaching out to those in need of guidance of support, especially the socially isolated, listening to anyone who needs a friend or a mentor and changing the public conversation," said Army Secretary John McHugh, co-chairman of the Action Alliance.

The 2012 National Strategy for Suicide Prevention is the first update of a strategy originally published in 2001.

That initiative contained 10 goals to reduce suicide in the following decade, including: promoting awareness of the nationwide problem; developing a prevention strategy; reducing the stigma associated with seeking mental health care; and promoting responsible media reporting and portrayal of suicides in the news and entertainment industries.

The new strategy incorporates several of the original's goals and adds new objectives, detailing 13 goals and 60 objectives to cut the nation's suicide rate.

New goals include broadening understanding across private and public organizations and integrating programs and approaches; issuing information to the public on warning signs and prevention; emphasizing to primary care physicians the importance of assessing and screening those at risk; and improving the timeliness of vital records data on suicides.

Between 1990 and 2000, suicide rates nationwide declined from more than 12 per 100,000 people to 10.1 per 100,000. Yet they began rising in 2001, climbing to 11.77 per 100,000 in 2009, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Rates in the military population also have soared. In 2001, the rate for all services was 10.3 per 100,000; by 2009, it was 18.4 per 100,000.

President Obama signed an executive order Aug. 31 to improve veterans' and troops' access to mental health care. The order calls for greater collaboration between VA and DoD on suicide prevention and directs VA to increase its crisis line capacity by 50 percent by years' end.

It also requires VA to ensure that veterans who self-identify as being a danger to themselves or others connect with trained mental health providers within 24 hours.

The national strategy is an effort to curb the rising suicide rates nationwide, a public health issue on par with "childhood obesity, hypertension or HIV/AIDS," Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said during the announcement.

"In the past, we've often treated mental health and substance abuse as a personal issue that individuals must overcome on their own," she said.

But these conditions must be recognized as "just as important to our country as any pressing health issue," she said. "Just like any public health issue, we must take action."

Sebelius announced that the administration is releasing $55.6 million in grants to support the strategy at the national, state and community level.

The funds are part of the Garrett Lee Smith Memorial Act signed by President Bush in 2004 to curb youth suicide, named for the son of former Sen. Gordon Smith of Oregon, who died at age 21 by suicide.

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