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Friday, April 19, 2024

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Suicide Prevention Team for Vets Kicks Off

Vince Kane

By Karen Knight

SOMERS POINT – With suicides listed as the second leading cause of death nationwide among veterans aged 18-34, a new Veteran Peer Suicide Prevention Team kicked off Dec. 14, in Atlantic and Cape May counties, by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).
The team is the first of its kind to be operated outside the walls of the VA, and will be available around the clock, seven days a week, at outpatient and in-house VA facilities, with the support of key community groups. It is expected to be in operation after Jan. 1, 2023.
In the meantime, veterans in crisis can still call 988 and press 1, if they need services or help.
According to Matt Jacobs, VA peer program coordinator and leader of the Suicide Prevention Program out of the Wilmington, Del. branch, death by suicide is a “community problem that not only affects veterans, but is a leading cause of death in young people.”
“Years ago, when someone was diagnosed with cancer, it was unspeakable,” Jacobs, who is a licensed clinical social worker, said. “Times have changed over the years and now people are more open about cancer. I think a similar thing is happening with suicide and now, we are putting a voice to it. It’s a community problem, not only with veterans, but also with our youth.”
According to the 2022 National Veterans Suicide Prevention Annual Report, which is based on 2020 death certificates, an average of 16.8 veterans die by suicide every day nationwide. In New Jersey, 58 veterans died by suicide in 2020, mostly males age 18-34. Statistics were not available for Cape May County prior to publication.
The study cites “high exposure to trauma, stress and burn out, isolation and loneliness, easy access and familiarity with guns, and difficulties re-integrating into civilian life as causes behind the high rates of suicide.”
Veterans are four times more likely to die by suicide compared to the general population.
“There is a stigma associated with getting help with mental health issues,” Jacobs said. “You have younger veterans, looking for help. If they are still in the military, the veteran doesn’t want to say anything, because they are afraid it will impact what they are doing. In the outside civilian world, they often think they are misunderstood.
“This group will be within the community so a veteran can feel comfortable in getting help, whereever he or she needs it,” he stressed.
Patrick Carney, who provides Suicide Prevention Outreach & Community Engagement for Atlantic and Cape May Counties, on behalf of the Wilmington VA, said the team will be composed of other veterans — peers who may have a history of mental issues and recovery themselves.
“They will be certified by the state after completing training in mental health issues,” he added.
The team, who will be in paid positions, will include licensed clinical social workers.
“Two-thirds of veterans are not affiliated with VA services,” Carney noted. “Our number one priority is to make these services available wherever they are needed, which means, if we have to go a veteran’s home, we will.”
The team is the first of its kind and Carney said the hope is that it will be an example for other VA facilities to follow across the nation. The VA is partnering with Rowan University, The Hope Exists Foundation (https://www.hopeoneac.com/post/hope-exists-help-us), county prosecutor’s offices, local non-VA health care providers, and the community to provide these services.
In addition to counseling services, Carney, who served as an infantryman in the U.S. Army for eight years, with two deployments to Iraq, said they are also planning camaraderie events, to get veterans engaged, and hopefully to become part of any suicide prevention measures.
“We want to keep our veterans motivated, get them out of the house, with events like running, or a rough march, sports, anything, to help give them a sense of community,” Carney noted. “We are committed to creating a culture to thrive, and survive, in Cape May and Atlantic Counties.”
Veterans’ groups, such as the American Legion, Disabled American Veterans (DAV) and Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW), can be as involved as much as they like, according to Carney, in hosting events, offering meeting locations or other activities.
Have thoughts on this story or a tip we should know? Contact the author by email: kknight@cmcherald.com.

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