The State of Virginia has a sizeable military and veteran population, with more than 720,000 veterans, over 155,000 Service Members (including Active duty, National Guard and Reservists), and 54,000 military spouses.
This population has certain unique challenges — challenges that the Virginia Veteran and Family Support (VVFS) is available to address.
One of these challenges is suicide prevention and the need to close gaps in access to care for service members, veterans and their families.
The organization’s VISR program, short for Virginia Identify, Screen and Refer, entering phase two of its pilot launch, is designed to ensure that individuals serving in the military and military veterans have access to treatment and support before a crisis occurs, or before they think about dying by suicide.
Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S. for all ages, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The 2019 National Veteran Suicide Prevention annual report found that male veterans ages 18-34 have the highest rate of suicide, while male veterans ages 55-74 have the highest count of suicides.
For Brandi Jancaitis, director of VVFS, the VISR Pilot is “personal.” Due to her background as an army wife whose husband is active military, she said she thinks every citizen should be able to see themselves in the suicide prevention mission.
“It’s important to talk about military and veteran suicide because we know that that group can be at higher risk but remembering that suicide is a concern for every citizen,” Jancaitis said. “It’s not just a military and veteran conversation; it’s a Virginian conversation.”
Jancaitis reels off a number of disturbing stats: rates of veteran suicide, in comparison to the civilian population, are about 52% higher than for adult civilians. Nationally, between 2008 and 2019, more than 6,000 Veterans died each year, with 6,261 in 2019 alone.
“Clearly, we need to focus our suicide prevention efforts among this key subpopulation which has such an elevated risk for suicide. The risk factors actually look pretty similar among military and civilians, such as mental health concerns and substance use disorders, as well as feelings of hopelessness, depression, anxiety, and the presence of trauma,” she says.
What makes this population a little more unique? Jancaitis suggests that having a military background can serve as a resilience factor or a risk factor.
“There may be trauma associated with their military experience. There’s also the stress of having family units disrupted. The service member is gone for long periods of time, whether that’s combat or a training deployment. And then if you put in any factors like the presence of anxiety or depression, you can see how that would quickly become more of a concern for suicide risk,” explains Jancaitis.
Another possible factor is the often difficult transition from being a service member and wearing a uniform, to being a civilian. Pivoting between the two roles can be a challenge. “That’s a key life change for anyone and that life change can increase the risk for suicide if there are other factors present,” she notes.
Military service members, veterans, and family members who are in crisis or having thoughts of suicide—and those who know someone in crisis—can call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (Veterans and caregivers, press 1) for confidential support 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and 365 days a year.