Suicide Prevention And the Blind Veteran

by Adele Geringer, VIST Coordinator, Providence VA Medical Center

An Unexpected Tragedy

A blind veteran, a leader in a national VSO, puts a gun to his head and takes his own life.

Those who knew him well shared:

“I know he had a history of depression; but he gave me a ride home last week and he was fine.”

“I was shocked. This shows how little we know of another person. “

“He always put up a front and I could never get close to him. “

“People don’t really know how they affect others when they do something like this. They think they are a pain in the butt to others and don’t want to make others miserable, so they just do it.”

We all experience loss at some point in our lives. It may be the loss of a loved one, the loss of a job, the loss of a relationship. Members of the Blinded Veterans Association share a common bond in the loss of vision. How we cope with this loss is impacted by how we have learned to cope with other losses in our lives.

If, in our lifetimes, the impact of loss has been a struggle for us, overcoming subsequent losses and other hardships which life presents us will have particular challenges that may not be possible for us to address single-handedly.

Many of us were raised to believe that if we share our pain with another, it is a sign of weakness. We feel afraid to share if we are in distress. We believe it will show that we are not strong.

We feel alone.

It is important to know we are not alone, and that there are many in the world that have experienced emotional pain and have learned skills to counter this pain. Treatment can help individuals learn to manage emotional distress, solve problems, and reevaluate a negative self-image. There are also skills to learn how to live a life that is “worth living.”

Suicide Statistics and Behaviors

According to an article in the Military Daily News of August 31, 2014, nearly seven out of ten veterans committing suicide are over the age of 50.

A January 15, 2015 Los Angeles Times piece cited a statistic revealing that 22 veterans take their own lives each day. Most of those suicides were committed by older veterans. The risk factors for veteran suicides are as follows: PTSD and depression; stressors that were kept at bay with work and family life that are no longer at bay with oncoming retirement and with the children leaving home and the family structure dissipating; increasing physical problems or disabilities; chronic pain and the ensuing depression; combination of pain and depression; perception that the aforementioned conditions are limiting life, ability, and identity.

The National Suicide Prevention Hotline explains that many veterans may not show any sign or intent to harm themselves before doing so, but the following signs can be a call for help:

  • Appearing sad or depressed most of the time.
  • Clinical depression: deep sadness, loss of interest, trouble sleeping and eating. Symptoms do not cease appearing, and in some cases continue to get worse.
  • Feeling anxious, agitated, or unable to sleep.
  • Neglecting personal welfare; deteriorating physical appearance.
  • Withdrawing from friends, family, and society, or sleeping all the time.
  • Losing interest in hobbies, work, school, or other things one used to care about.
  • Frequent and dramatic mood changes.
  • Expressing feelings of excessive guilt or shame.
  • Feelings of failure or decreased performance.
  • Feeling that life is not worth living; having no sense of purpose in life.
  • Talking about feeling trapped—like there is no way out of a situation.
  • Having feelings of desperation; saying that there is no solution to their problems.

The behavior of a person contemplating suicide may be dramatically different from their normal behavior, or they may appear to be actively contemplating or preparing for a suicidal act through behaviors such as:

  • Performing poorly at work or school or home.
  • Acting recklessly or engaging in risky activities, seemingly without thinking.
  • Showing violent behavior such as punching holes in walls, getting into fights or self-destructive violence; feeling rage or uncontrolled anger or seeking revenge.
  • Looking as though one has a “death wish,” tempting fate by taking risks that could lead to death, such as driving fast or running red lights or walking into traffic.
  • Giving away prized possessions.
  • Putting affairs in order, tying up loose ends, and/or making out a will.
  • Seeking access to firearms, pills, or other means of harming oneself.

How To Help

If you are a veteran or know a veteran who is showing any of the above warning signs, you can seek help from a VA hospital mental health counselor or from a community mental health professional.

For resources, or to just talk, veterans can call the Veterans Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255.

Callers are asked to press “1” in order to speak with a caring, experienced VA responder. The conversation is free of charge and confidential.

The Veterans Crisis Line webpage offers support and assistance to spouses, children, parents, siblings, grandparents, friends, and caregivers.

“If you are concerned about the safety and well-being of a veteran, please stand by them,” the page states.

Loved ones are urged to make the call to the crisis line, chat online via a link from the webpage, or to send a text message to 838255. They should error on the side of caution, keeping in mind that crisis feels different for everyone and can arise from a wide variety of situations before, during, or after military service.