Providing Community And Connectedness to Combat Veteran Suicide
By Amy Tolchinsky, senior communications officer for the CDC Foundation
Each year, hundreds of thousands of Americans serve their country in the U.S. military. For many, their military experience becomes a building block for personal and professional development, and a touchstone of pride long after they return to civilian life.
For some others, however, post-military life can bring challenges. Sadly, the suicide rate for veterans is 1.5 times greater than for those who have not served in the military, particularly among young veterans aged 18-35.
“Veterans coming home can feel completely disconnected from their ‘people,’ and that can lead to depression,” said Mat Bergendahl, director of suicide prevention at StackUp, a non-profit veteran service organization. “There are many factors that can contribute to a veteran’s decision to kill him or herself.”
With the support of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the CDC Foundation has worked to address the challenge of veteran suicide through grants awarded to five community-based organizations: StackUp, The Mission Continues, America’s Warrior Partnership, Arizona Coalition for Military Families, and The Warrior Alliance. These grants are helping each group identify and evaluate their goals in suicide prevention.
Founded in 2015, StackUp brings both veterans and civilian supporters together through a shared love of video gaming. While some may picture gaming as a solitary pastime, 70 percent of gamers play with others present or in groups connected over the internet, bolstering a sense of community.
Multiplayer games bring people together,” Bergendahl said. “They set the tone for conversation, and that connectedness is really important.”
Though based in the United States, StackUp has a global reach. Trained volunteers, known as Stack leaders, can start chapters in their communities, organizing local gaming events to help connect veterans. Daniel Patterson, a civilian Stack leader in Puerto Rico, says he became interested in StackUp because of his own experiences with post-traumatic stress. Through gaming, Patterson says, he is able to give back to veterans in a meaningful way.
“I am just there to listen and help them find the answers,” Patterson said. “Because StackUp uses gaming, it’s an open door for them to talk.”
Opening those doors to dialogue is just one of the many unique roles that veteran service organizations can play in veteran care. Looking to work with a group that understood the dynamics of non-profits made partnering with the CDC Foundation a natural fit, says Dr. Melissa Brown, behavioral scientist at CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control.
“CDC Foundation was an ideal partner due to their extensive network,” Brown said. “It’s especially exciting to see them applying their deep knowledge and commitment to the power of collaboration and partnership toward community organizations.”
Other organizations, like national nonprofit America’s Warrior Partnership, take a holistic approach. Because circumstances surrounding veteran suicide are complex, the group develops and maintains relationships with veterans to help them balance all aspects of their lives, from education and employment to housing and transportation, among others.
Cheree Tham, co-founder and vice president of America’s Warrior Partnership, says common challenges veterans face include transitioning from the unified culture of the military to finding their own individual path in the civilian sector, which often starts with connecting the skills they learned in the military to the requirements of employers and academic institutes.
“This grant allows us to look at the touchpoints within the community, where we could have gotten ahead of the crisis and focused on prevention techniques,” Tham said.
Early intervention is a key element of veterans support, says Nicola Winkel, project director at the Arizona Coalition for Military Families. Most veteran service organizations follow either a community integration model, linking veterans with community services to address issues like housing or transportation, or a connectedness model, which focuses on helping veterans engage with like-minded communities to avoid feelings of isolation. In both approaches, Winkel says, the goal is to address small, day-to-day issues before they become significant problems.
“There is a tendency to see suicide prevention as stopping someone from killing themselves,” Winkel said. “But we’re trying to help people understand that suicide prevention also includes simply listening to someone who is feeling overwhelmed, or knowing a number to call for help.”
Often, Winkel says, the root causes of deeper mental health issues for veterans lie in common challenges like finding employment, financial worries, affordable housing, and relationship stress.
“If you can solve these types of problems, that’s as much suicide prevention as helping someone in the moment who is in a true mental health emergency,” Winkel said.
Each veteran service organization can use the grant to examine where their suicide prevention efforts are strongest, and where they may need help, which will bolster their overall effectiveness.
“This is a public health crisis that the private sector cannot solve alone, and the public sector cannot solve alone,” said Rob Abraham, a senior advancement officer for the CDC Foundation. “The CDC Foundation has strategic experience in bridging the gap between the public and private sector and bringing them both to the table to collaborate towards a shared impact.”
For Cheree Tham, Nicola Winkel, Mat Bergendahl, and those of the other veteran service organizations, the grant opens doors to data collection that can have a profound impact on their daily work.
“The success of this grant and this evaluation plan will help us to streamline and strategize to help eradicate veterans suicide,” Tham said. “We know that’s a dream, but it’s what we want to see happen.”