Suicide prevention among vets a topic at Bay Pines panel

Norman Wooten, 70, who suffers from PTSD, said it’s hard to call the hotline when “you’re hanging on by your fingernails.’’
Norman Wooten, 70, who suffers from PTSD, said it’s hard to call the hotline when “you’re hanging on by your fingernails.’’
Published July 13, 2017

SEMINOLE — By the time Darin Short attended the panel discussion on suicide prevention Wednesday, he had already waited six weeks for counseling through the Department of Veterans Affairs.

And the 48-year-old Army veteran from Largo had another six weeks to go, he told the panel at Bay Pines VA Healthcare System. Eighty-nine total days of waiting.

Administrators on the panel were surprised.

"We offer same-day mental health services here," Dr. Alfonso Carreno, chief of the mental health and behavioral sciences service at the hospital, assured Short, who served in the Army from 1991 to 2013.

The discussion was one of the hospital's quarterly town hall-style meetings. It has been hosting them since 2014, but this was the first to be held on a specific topic — veteran suicide.

Veterans continue to commit suicide at a disproportionate rate relative to the general population, and preventing suicide among veterans is one of the top priorities for VA Secretary David Shulkin, Carreno said.

On average, about 20 veterans commit suicide every day, accounting for about 18 percent of the 112 adult deaths in the United States from suicide. Yet veterans account for about 8.5 percent of the general population.

Before the panel took questions, Carreno and Bay Pines' suicide prevention coordinator Patricia Frederick talked about ways to identify and provide help to someone who is distressed or experiencing suicidal thoughts.

A feeling of hopelessness was one of the most important indicators to whether someone is at risk for suicide, Frederick said. Other signs include sleeplessness and anxiety, engaging in increasingly risky behavior, substance abuse and withdrawal from friends and family.

She said it's important to remind those who feel hopeless that there is help for them.

"If you can get past the window of hopelessness, then you can save someone's life," she said.

Another life-saving technique is to ensure firearms are locked and stored separately from ammunition, Carreno said. Firearms are the leading method of suicide among veterans, she said, followed by hanging and overdose.

The pair also encouraged those in the room to seek counseling. Most veterans who kill themselves are not receiving treatment from the Veterans Health Administration, he said.

When the panel opened the floor to questions and comments, one of the recurring themes was the desire for the process to be simplified. Veteran Norman Wooten told administrators how difficult it is to do the most basic of tasks — like calling the Veterans Crisis Hotline — when he's overcome with post-traumatic stress disorder from his time in the Air Force in the 1960s.

"It's like you're hanging on by your fingernails and you're falling down a hole," he said.

Wooten suggested a three-digit number, like 911 or 411, be made available for people in acute mental health crises.

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Two others opined that the transition from active duty to veteran status is a period during which people are particularly vulnerable, especially since rates of suicide among veterans 18 to 29 are on the rise.

Marine veteran Michael Jernigan, 38, of St. Petersburg suggested it might be worthwhile for the Department of Defense to look into implementing a similar program to one used by the Department of Veterans Affairs that identifies the most at-risk veterans.

The cutting-edge program called Recovery Engagement and Coordination for Health — Veterans Enhanced Treatment, or REACH VET, uses predictive modeling to identify the top 0.1 percent of veterans who are most at risk of suicide and provide them preventive care.

Short, who complained of long wait times, said the process for seeking help needs improvement. He said if the person answering the phone isn't one of the VA's "superstars," if they are not informed or enthusiastic about their work, there are veterans who miss out in getting the assistance they need.

"How often do you, if ever, pick up the phone and don the hat of a veteran and try to navigate your own system?" he asked.

Contact Josh Solomon at (813) 909-4613 or Follow @josh_solomon15.