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Suicide rate higher among veterans in West Virginia

Erin Beck | The Charleston Gazette

Tara Abdalla loved ballet, drawing, writing poems and serving her country.

Richard Abdalla, Tara’s father, said she was friendly and outgoing. She didn’t show any outward signs of suffering in her phone conversations with him, while she was stationed at Hill Air Force Base, in Utah.

But on June 3, 2006, 23-year-old Tara took her own life. 

As of the end of September, about 9 percent of West Virginians were military veterans, according to U.S. Census data. But veterans made up about 23 percent of state suicides from 2000-2013, according to the Department of Health and Human Resources’ Health Statistics Center.

Looking back now, Abdalla says he sees that several of Tara’s experiences contributed to her emotional struggle. Tara was not allowed to deploy because of her last name, even though the family is not Muslim. He said there were incidents of American soldiers attacking other American soldiers who had Arabic last names.

“The whole reason she joined was to go over there,” Abdalla said. “She was really upset that she couldn’t go. She understood why, but she didn’t like it.”

She was also dealing with thyroid problems, which ultimately resulted in her being released from the Air Force. She stayed in Utah, to try to work things out with a boyfriend with whom she was having problems. She became pregnant, then had a miscarriage. She also found out that her grandmother, with whom she was very close, had Alzheimer’s disease.

“It’s never just one problem,” Abdalla said. “It’s several problems.”

Abdalla said Tara’s sister, Shana, was hit the hardest. Tara and Shana were just a year and 16 days apart in age and were very close.

“They did everything together, up until the time that Tara went into the Air Force,” he said. “Shana has struggled the last eight years with the fact her sister is no longer there.”

Abdalla wants to urge people considering suicide to ask for help, and for friends and family to listen for signs of emotional pain.

“If they personally can’t help,” he said, “get them in touch with somebody who can.” 

Those in crisis can turn to one of the 13 comprehensive mental-health centers in the state or the services available at the VA. Counseling can help people learn coping skills for when life experiences feel like too much to bear. 

In 2011, the rate of suicide among users of Veterans Health Administration services in West Virginia was 32.0 per 100,000, according to Kerry Meeker, a spokeswoman for the Department of Veterans Affairs. The rate among the general population in the state was 17.4.

Dr. Caitlin Thompson, deputy director for suicide prevention at the VA, said many of those who die by suicide were never deployed.

“There’s a misperception that veterans who are in combat, they go through horrible situations in war and they can’t deal with those, and they come home and kill themselves,” she said. “While that certainly happens to some veterans, we’ve found that most veterans who die by suicide, especially in our most recent conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, they’ve never even deployed.”

The VA is studying reasons why that could be occurring. Veterans’ familiarity with firearms can increase the likelihood that attempts will be completed, according to Thompson. The likelihood of veterans owning a firearm means they are more readily accessible when veterans are feeling suicidal, she said. 

Thompson also said that while most veterans who die by suicide are over the age of 50, the rate among 18-26 year olds is quickly increasing. She noted that veterans are part of a strong support system when they are deployed. It can be difficult to transition after a deployment without that support network.

Figures from the DHHR’s Health Statistics Center show that, from 2000 to 2013, 983 veteran deaths were documented as suicides. Of those, 881 were people 35 or older, and 413 were people over age 65. 

Dr. Dan Reidenberg, director of Suicide Awareness Voices of Education, pointed out that senior veterans were raised in a time when suicide wasn’t talked about.

“The more we can make it OK for them to talk about it now, the better chance we have at getting them the help that they need,” he said.

Older veterans also struggle with watching younger veterans come back and be treated with more dignity than they were, he said. They also might be dealing with aches and pains from war injuries and have difficulty adjusting as they become physically limited.

Reidenberg said it is important to recognize senior veterans for their service, even late in life.

“I see stories in the news of somebody who might be in their 70s or 80s finally given a Purple Heart,” he said. “Those kinds of opportunities we can take to honor them and pay tribute to them helps their emotional well-being.” 

He said that while many senior veterans are wary of the VA, he believes the VA is improving its quality of care. 

“These are very dedicated and passionate people that will do anything they can to help those who have served our country,” he said. “So, while it may not be a perfect system, it is a really good system that is trying really hard to do the best they can with the resources they have.”

Thompson said the VA tries to encourage veterans to seek help in several ways. The VA runs a hotline for veterans in crisis to make that first contact. Veterans can reach the crisis hotline by calling 1-800-273-8255, then pressing 1. Veterans also have the option to text crisis workers or chat online. 

“There is still that fear that, if I talk about it, something bad will happen, or I don’t want to talk about it because I don’t want to be seen as weak,” Thompson said. 

The VA has tried to let veterans know it’s OK to talk about suicide through a website, The VA also uses peer-support specialists to encourage veterans to reach out and can also coach family members on how to talk to veterans who might be struggling.

“What we’ve done in many different ways is try to make it comfortable for people to look at other veterans who are doing well, who did reach out for help, so those people who are scared can feel comfortable to reach out,” she said.

At the Huntington VA, Julie Brawn and Deanna Stump conduct outreach activities meant to heighten awareness. 

“Many veterans have had specific military stressors or combat stressors, but overall suicide is a mental-health problem that civilians or military people can be subject to,” Brawn said. 

They said the gateway team, located right beside the ER, is for walk-in clients to come in and be evaluated at any time. They also offer telemental health from home.

Thompson is hopeful about the federal Clay Hunt bill, signed into law on Thursday. The bill includes outside evaluations of VA prevention and mental-health programs, encourages collaboration with nonprofit mental-health care organizations and incentivizes psychiatrist positions at the VA by providing for loan repayment.

“It will absolutely help to really elevate a lot of what we’re already doing,” she said.

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