September is Suicide Prevention Awareness Month and the statistic from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) that veterans are committing suicide at a rate of approximately 22 per day, is heart-wrenching. The thought of men and women who possess the external and internal strength to survive, overcome and adapt in some of the most dangerous living conditions imaginable, only to succumb to their own perceived hopelessness and frustration back home is unacceptable. More must be done to meet the challenges of this very real security threat and public health crisis.
Jeffrey Lucey of Belchertown, Mass. was a 23 year-old Marine veteran of Iraq. He came home and suffered with post-traumatic stress and depression. Despite intense love and support from his family, he could not see a path to overcoming all that he was dealing with and committed suicide in 2004. In meeting with members of the Mass. Department of Veterans' Services, Jeffrey's parents, Kevin and Joyce, shared their thoughts and feelings about what would have helped Jeffrey and what we could still do to support those men and women who were currently out there trying to seek help and resources in an attempt to heal and reintegrate successfully back to civilian life. Kevin and Joyce were forthcoming with their frustrations about the veterans' benefits system and the difficulty in accessing it to its fullest potential. They told us that any new program we instituted had to meet the needs of the veterans, and not make the veterans meet the needs of the system.
This was the genesis for the Statewide Advocacy for Veterans' Empowerment (SAVE) program, launched under the leadership of MA Governor Deval Patrick. SAVE outreach coordinators focus on community advocacy, suicide prevention, mental health awareness and referrals as well as respond to the myriad of needs of veterans and their families, such as how to more easily access the important benefits they have earned. The SAVE team is comprised of recently returned veterans and family members of veterans. These men and women bring their personal experiences and expertise to their work helping others. Peer-to-peer interaction and support is an essential feature of the program's success and they meet with veterans and their families out in the community, bringing the resources directly to them.
Through the use of these peer navigators, we are able to reach veterans on a level that those who did not serve often find challenging. The SAVE peers are based, not in a government office, but out in their respective communities. They find veterans on college campuses, in coffee shops, in our Courts, at career centers and at VA and non-VA healthcare facilities. The issue of "you don't know what I've been through" is off the table. The peers, with training and education about the system in total, are able to connect with that veteran and get them to those VA, State or community-based programs that can help them.
In short, SAVE is working to reduce veterans suicide in Massachusetts by connecting with those Servicemembers who are recently returned and educating them, not only on how to access all of their benefits, but also by credentialing and verifying the various resources in a way that only a fellow veteran can.
This model is extremely cost-effective and produces better utilization rates for the already comprehensive network and programs and services we already make available to our veterans and their families. And, by virtue of their community basing and mission to integrate in their local regions, SAVE workers have become a vital contact for organizations like local healthcare providers and law enforcement personnel when working with veterans-in-crisis in their systems. This program is a true national model that the VA and other states are looking at for possible wider implementation. It has been recognized by the Massachusetts Coalition for Suicide Prevention with a Leadership in Suicide Prevention Award.
It goes without saying that we believe SAVE is a great program. But, it is only one of many important initiatives happening at the State and Community levels to fight against veterans suicide. If we are to achieve our goals, we must all work together to help veterans receive the benefits and compassion they have earned at every level of government and society. If for no other reason, we owe it to Jeffrey Lucey and all the other heroes like him to accomplish this mission.
This post is part of a special Huffington Post series, "Invisible Casualties," in which we shine a spotlight on suicide-prevention efforts within the military. Every weekday in September, we'll feature a different blog post by someone who is either an expert in the field, who has been affected by a suicide, or who has contemplated suicide. To see all the posts in the series, as well as original reporting, audio and video, click here.
If you or someone you know would like to contribute to our series, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
And please, if you or someone you know needs help, call the national crisis line for the military and veterans, 1-800-273-8255, or send a text to 838255.