AUGUSTA — Nationally, an average of 20 veterans die by suicide every day. September is National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, a time for each of us to reflect on the lives lost to veteran suicide and commit ourselves to saving the lives of those who have sworn to protect ours.

According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ 2015 Maine Veteran Suicide Data Sheet, the veteran suicide rate in Maine was significantly higher than the national rate. Maine veteran suicides totaled 47 in 2015, out of the total 228 suicide deaths in Maine that year. VA data also show that Maine’s veteran suicide rate is highly elevated versus other categories:

Maine veteran suicide rate: 39.2 per 100,000.

Maine suicide rate: 21.3 per 100,000.

• Northeastern regional suicide rate: 13.3 per 100,000 (Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Vermont).

National suicide rate: 17.3 per 100,000.

As the primary advocate for Maine veterans and their families, the Maine Bureau of Veterans’ Services believes in the meaningful collaboration of community stakeholders to provide greater pathways to care for veterans in need. As one of the most common intake points for veterans facing health crises, medical providers are crucial to this effort, but they cannot do it alone. Broader public awareness of veteran suicide is also essential.

In 2017, the Maine Bureau of Veterans’ Services and the VA held a statewide symposium on veteran suicide, where over 150 individuals and organizations made commitments to “#BeThere For Our Veterans” by adding suicide prevention training to employee briefings; developing partnerships with clergy across the state of Maine; adding the Veterans Crisis Line contact information to organization newsletters and, for those providing medical care, by asking veteran patients if they’ve ever contemplated suicide.

You may be asking yourself, “What can I do to prevent veteran suicide?” The answer is: a lot! First, learn to recognize the signs of a veteran in crisis. While not always obvious, some potential warning signs include overt emotional swings, violent or risky behaviors, substance abuse, neglecting personal hygiene, withdrawing from personal relationships and preparing personal affairs (e.g., writing a will), among others.

Also, far too many veterans have not enrolled in the VA health care system and may not realize the medical services that are available to them. In fact, only six out of the estimated 20 veterans a day who ended their lives were enrolled in and using VA at the time of their suicide. If you are a veteran who is not enrolled in the VA, or you know a veteran who is not enrolled, call us. The Bureau of Veterans’ Services can walk you through the process, step by step, ensuring access to the benefits you have earned and deserve.

The bureau stands ready to work with Maine’s medical providers, community action programs and state and local leaders to improve veteran suicide prevention and intervention processes. It illustrates why we exist: to connect veterans and their families with the benefits and resources to which they are entitled. We do this via direct advocacy and via our satellite office on the Togus VA campus, as well as through our veteran service officers stationed in six offices around the state.

The state has also begun implementing Maine’s first veterans case management program. With the Maine Legislature’s approval in 2017 of L.D. 1231, a mental health case management pilot program was created for veterans and current service members. On Jan. 1, Maine hospitals began implementing the program to identify veterans in need of mental and behavioral health care. During the first six months of the pilot, over 1,300 veterans across the state presented to hospital emergency departments needing such care.

While the number of veteran suicides in Maine decreased from 55 in 2014 to 47 in 2015, there is still more that can and will be done. One veteran taking his or her own life is one too many, and we will continue to bring our partners together to work toward the goal of eliminating veteran suicide altogether.

While no two veterans share the same journey through crisis, there are resources available for everyone. Know the signs. Know the symptoms. Know the available options.

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